The Bleak Midwinter

A time for burning things
A time for burning things

December is truly a dreadful month, for those of us towards the northern end of the planet. This is part of the order of things: the dying of the old year exerts a melancholy pull on our animal selves and we are good for little else but hibernation.

What is unnatural, though, is how our modern midwinter customs seem calculated to make things worse. They reflect a deafness to the rhythms of the world around us, a deafness whose price we are too civilised to acknowledge.

This is an invitation to listen, to catch the pulse of the year and see how dancing with it might ease our lives a little.

It starts with accepting the bleakness of midwinter as part of a great cycle. It took me years to get this far and there is a deep relief in doing so. I used to feel personally responsible for the sense of uselessness that overtakes me some time in early December, or take it for impotent revulsion at the hellish mash-up of Victorian kitsch and hyper-consumerism which has come to be called Christmas.

When, with good reason, preachers lament what materialism has done to their feast, this emphasis obscures a larger perversion. Not only do today’s customs make a mockery of Christian belief, the activities prescribed are utter foolishness: biologically they make no sense and only a culture as out of sorts as ours could fail to notice this.

The effect of the northern winter on the mood was remarked on by the 6th century historian Jordanes, writing his history of the Goths from the kinder climate of Constantinople. Modern medicine labels the phenomenon Seasonal Affective Disorder, but is there anything out of order about a lowering of the spirits, as the life ebbs from the landscape around us?

The midwinter customs of northern cultures recognise and work with this. The weeks before the solstice are handled with care, with an awareness that the forces of life, light and warmth are at their weakest. In Shetland, the week before Yule was a time when trolls were at large and to be kept off with rituals at gates and doorways. In Latvia, the fortnight before the winter festival is called “the season of ghosts.” The Christian season of Advent, a time of quietness and waiting, itself reflects the wisdom of going gently through these ugliest weeks of the year.

Then comes the turning point, the great defeat of darkness, like a story we love to hear told again and again. No amount of astronomical certainty can remove the background level of uneasiness which grows as the longest night approaches, nor the lifting of the spirit as the days begin to lighten perceptibly. Much of winter’s harshness and hunger may lie ahead, but we know that the world is headed towards comfort and fruitfulness again.

Now the celebrations can begin – and it is the days ahead, the twelve days of Christmas, Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the rest, which are the proper time for feasting and sharing the relief. Bring in the magical evergreens that brighten the bleakness, light the yule log and let the singing and the drinking last as long as it burns. These customs make sense: they accord with the experience of our senses, with what we see and feel around us.

But all of this has been replaced by a wild frenzy which takes up three-quarters of December: office parties, school nativities, working overtime to clear the desk before making long, stressful journeys, and crowding a large share of the year’s shopping into three or four weekends of mayhem. By the time we reach Christmas Day, we are ready to collapse, most often into bickering with parents and siblings.

We are too sophisticated to admit that we are still subject to the pull of the seasons. In an age of twenty-four hour fluorescence and air-freighted midwinter strawberries, we are too disoriented to notice that the world is a different place tonight than it was a week ago. Our technological conveniences make it easier to sustain this disorientation, but still it wears us down.

Its cost is felt at the most intimate level. For many of us, the days ahead are the most prolonged time we will spend together with our families all year. How much difference would it make to these relationships if we arrived rested – or if we held our annual family gatherings around May Day, when the air is warm and everything is taking a gamble on life?

This week’s airport chaos may give a glimpse of the disruptions ahead. As we meet these disruptions, we can object loudly like dissatisfied customers, or we can make the best of the world as we find it. As we do so, much that has been labelled as superstition may turn out to contain wisdom about how to work with the grain of reality. A revaluing of ritual and custom, if it avoids becoming historical reenactment, can help us ease the hardnesses of being in the world.

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