By Jim McGuire
EVERGREENS AND LIGHT
Tomorrow we mark the passing solstice. For those long-ago folks who first began noting the progression of the seasons by tracking the sun, December must have pushed their optimism and courage to the limits.
Something was clearly amiss — and had been for some time. The warm, wonderful sun was retreating, heading southward. Each day it scribed a lower arc across the sky. Daylight’s span had decreased seriously. Nights were growing now increasingly longer and much colder.
How far would the waning sun go … would it completely disappear below the horizon? Talk about a frightful thought!
In summertime the living had been easy. Light and heat arriving daily in carefree abundance. No worries about tomorrow during that gentle season of fat, green plenitude.
Autumn, too, had provided ample measures of sun, along with a veritable cornucopia of good things to hunt, gather, and feast upon.
Yet that’s when things started to noticeably change. All the once-green leaves, donned bright hues of red and orange and yellow, before abruptly fluttering to the ground. The forests were now laid bare, stark, wide-open, allowing the unfettered wind to blow its icy breath across the now barren land.
By watching their marker sticks and stones, they raptly followed the sun’s progress. Indeed, watching the sun slowly but surely disappear must have been terrifying — a cruel joke which played upon mankind’s primal need for warmth while kicking in his instinctive fear of darkness.
Hope and faith were their only lifelines as they warily noted as the feeble sun slowed in its sinking journey … paused … then, to their great relief, begin to creep back their way. A sort of natural miracle — one which those few left with a smidgen of optimism, might even parlay into allowing themselves to believe might one day deliver another spring and summer.
Talk about relief! This was a reprieve worth getting excited about. Life over death!
No wonder so many different people in so many different times and places and cultures, held their biggest celebrations at this singular midwinter mark. December’s solstice is a pivotal event — a balance point between darkness and light, autumn and spring. A place where time’s great wheel turns over with a promise to renew itself for another year.
Even so, the days of winter — its natural face — has long been considered bleak, lifeless, even dead. Or almost dead, except for those few odd plants which somehow didn’t die, but remained green. Plants so unique they were considered magical or holy, imbued with special powers. Thus these evergreen plants became objects of veneration among the ancients.
My old Druid ancestors revered the mysterious mistletoe. They gathered it from scared groves according to strict rituals, and employed various portions of the plant in their secret ceremonies and concoctions.
Those same Druid priests also drew some of their magic powers from pines and holly. And they adored hemlocks. I don’t think any other group has ever so intertwined all types of evergreens quite as thoroughly into their culture.
Later on, hunters in other countries and cultures often made a point of sticking a sprig of mistletoe in their hats for luck—a charm which remains valid and in use by hunters in several European nations today. Of course here in the United States, those of us who collect mistletoe have an entirely different — though perhaps no less sporting — use in mind.
We still bring all sorts of evergreens into our homes. Not just the venerable and iconic Christmas tree, but wreaths made from evergreen boughs and holly. Woven, never-ending circles representing eternal life.
December is the darkest month of the year. But it’s also the season of light—both in the subtle returning of the sun, and as the time when the Christian world celebrates the birth of Christ, whose midnight coming, announced to hillside shepherds, was told amid a glorious light.
Evergreens and light. One reminds that life goes on. The other pushes away the darkness. It’s not by accident that most of our seasonal decorating during this time of year involves these two most ancient and scared symbols.
May you find both peace and joy this holiday season. Merry Christmas!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]