The days grow shorter, the light fades away ever earlier, rain or snow falls, and the sunset peeks through under the lowering clouds, reflecting the glow in the rain-shined deck out my back door. We hunker down, or bundle up and go out to see the sky, glimpses of blue, or a ray of sunlight shining through the raindrops. We look for light, and when the heavens do not provide enough we light candles and put up colored lights. We wait for the shortest day, the longest night when the sun is reborn into the yearly cycle. Yule comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Wheel”, and the turning wheel of the year does seem to catch here for a moment. Every seed we plant, every hope and prayer we utter, every light we hold to our hearts comes out of the fertile darkness. It is a time of rest, for some, while others run faster and faster, filling up the season to distract themselves from that disquieting darkness. And yet at no other season of the year is a sunset so beautiful, or any light, as when it is darkest. Such is the nature of gifts.
Old European traditions put the celebration of Christmas (which is really an overlay on the older pagan custom of celebrating winter solstice) at different dates all over December and even into January. Today is Santa Lucia day, celebrated in Sweden with an Italian-sounding song, when a girl dressed all in white with a red sash and wearing a wreath with four lit candles upon her head, brings food and blessings to all. There is probably no other holiday, at least in the European calendar, that has so many traditions, customs and old ways associated with it. Because people need to celebrate the most when it’s darkest.