By Jim McGuire
December is almost a week old! While these early days of the year’s final month have certainly looked and felt is more wintery than anything September, October or November managed to dish out, according to the way we reckon our seasons, this is still officially autumn — and will remain so until the 21st with its passing solstice.
However, I’m not much of a stickler for such petty details. In my book—and regardless of what the calendar says — December’s arrival kicks off the start of winter.
In Old Gaelic December was known as Dudlachd, “the darkness.” As you’re doubtless already aware, dusk seems to be closing in on us sooner each day. This isn’t your imagination. December’s first few days indeed bring the earliest sunsets of the entire year, though not the shortest days, since sunrises will continue to lag for another month.
December is also the darkest month of the year in terms of total sunlight—sunrise-to-sunset lengths averaging barely nine hours. January beats December daylight-wise with approximately six additional hours. Even truncated February, with three fewer allotted days, serves up more total daylight hours. No wonder we get up in the dark, go to work in the dark, and come home in the dark!
Yet I’ve never thought December gloomy. Quite the opposite since I’ve always visualized December as a month filled with sparkle and light — the exact opposite of dreary.
This clearly subjective viewpoint is doubtless partly due to the amount of time I spend outside — hunting, hiking, camping, picture taking, even fishing. December has a wealth of treasures to explore.
My outlook may also be shaped by genetics — a built-in Celtic bias along with an admittedly boreal nature. My wife says I remind her of a shaggy Irish bear, energized by the cold and ice. I do truly love winter … love the ancient quiet of a snowy woods, and the delicate harp-moan of wind coursing over a pine-clad hill. I find the shape and texture of December’s fundamental landscapes extraordinary, soothing, occasionally mystical. Perhaps a few drops of Druid blood yet seeps through my veins.
Sere, muted, not colorless, but of a reduced spectrum severely narrowed in its range of tones. Altogether a quieter palette. December’s landscape truly isn’t bleak, but it does take a while for the eye to become adjusted.
Naturalist Hal Borland once called December a kind of summation. I interpret that as meaning not merely the changeover of another monthly cycle, but recognition of an interim period when the annual seasonal progression becomes distilled—a singular point of abeyance where it’s possible to witness the measure of the journey itself, both past and future.
December is time for balancing the ledger. For looking back and peering ahead.
For the groundhog just settling in for a long winter’s slumber in his snug burrow, spring is not a certainty. December’s summation isn’t an abstract, but rather a live-or-die calculation.
Someone once said that December is the price we pay for June. Maybe, though that seems to me a distortion of nature’s cadence. A wrong way of judging the round of the year.
Seasons, like life itself, clarify themselves around a span of stages, a series of unique yet familiar events prescribed by nature and shaped by choice and the randomness of cause and effect. Neither brutal nor harsh, simply an example of natural honesty — a serving of raw truth.
Come December our viewpoint shifts toward the fundamentals. We begin to look inward, to turn thoughtful if not contemplative. December begs both questions and affirmations.
December is not a tariff for June. Instead, it is another welcome stop on the eternal wheel, a pause to gather in from the hum and scurry of autumn and prepare physically, mentally, and spiritually for winter.
Life has slowed, retreating into root and bud, seed and egg, burrow and den. Waiting, listening for that unmistakable tock, now long distant, which will once again call another spring forth.
In spite of the month’s social whirl, the parties, business demands, visits, and family activities—and especially as a means to offset the now daily onslaught of commercial badgering and guilt-sowing over gift spending—we need December’s open simplicity.
December gift is a cold and necessary wind, a saving grace that whisks away the last tattered remnants of a season past, while cleansing and tidying up for the season ahead.
And all the while, both figuratively and literally, December’s heart remains filled with holy light.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]