I often find myself at odds over what to do with the winter solstice. A lot of my fellow pagans are really, really jazzed about the narrative of the light triumphant returning after the longest night, but it just doesn’t do much for me. I get it, of course — the Triumph of the Light is a wide-ranging cultural trope, so I feel a little surge of excited joy when listening to songs about it, or ritual that use the narrative structurally — and I certainly mean no disrespect to anyone for whom the return of the light is a meaningful narrative: I’m very glad for you! But it doesn’t do as much for me, and I think I figured out why.
Basically: I like the dark. I realize that sounds somewhat simplistic, but let me break it down a bit more: when we discuss the dawn of solstice day, after the end of the Longest Night, we often speak of a victory, or of light overcoming darkness. The Roman veneration of Sol Invictus on or near the solstice (often adopted by modernday pagans as a framework for solstice celebrations) is, quite literally, a celebration of “The Unconquered Sun.” If you’ve been around paganism for even a little bit — or, for that matter, if you’ve paid metaphorical attention to the discussions of the coming of Jesus in the majority culture, whose imagery often partakes of the light-over-darkness motif — this isn’t news to you.
But what you may not have considered are the ramifications of this victory/struggle/conquering talk: it implies the darkness is bad. And there are, of course, good reasons to conceive the darkness as badness. First and foremost, darkness is the absence of the life-giving sun whose rays are directly responsible for the continuation of life on our planet. And then there are the myriad other real-world difficulties with the dark: the dark half of the year is the cold half in temperate regions, and that’s hard; we can’t see in the dark and that’s hard; brigands and blackguards can move more stealthily in the dark and that’s hard, not to mention dangerous. And so on and so forth. But when we talk of the Return of the Light in these terms, we’re implicitly setting up an adversarial interplay between Light and Dark, where Light gets coded as welcoming and joyous and virtuous and good… and Dark is all the things that Light is not.
But: I like the dark. And I mean that almost orientationally.
When I happened to be up early enough to catch the sunrise a couple months ago and posted a prayer in praise of Aurora, it was so out of character that one person said, only half-jokingly, “Yesssss, come to the brightening side….” I responded, totally truthfully, “You know I’m really a fire in the dark person.” Because I am. I certainly welcome bright summer days, clear blue skies, warm picnics on the grass, etc., but my worship belongs to the coolness of evening, the rich velvet fabric of the night sky, the moon rising above me. I do most of my trance and magical work at night. I revel in a fire burning warmly, the circle wrapped in deep, plush blackness. I associate my patron god, Manannán mac Lir, with the moon, and I often talk with him under the night sky with all the lights far away. I honor the Cailleach Bheur, winter’s hag, and I welcome her gift of winter. I’ve got a whole thing brewing with Baba Yaga (that I’m still not so sure about, but hey), and I don’t think it’s even occurred to me to try and talk with her in the daytime. My most pervasive image of Ogmios is of amber beads strung between souls, catching and holding the flow of the firelight. Dark is where I most feel the gods. Dark is power and and richness. Dark is warm, humid summer dusk thick with the call of crickets and katydids. Dark is winter’s perfection, distilled and crystallized in the brittle fragility of a thin layer of ice growing on the lake when the sun has gone away. Dark is red wine, dark is incense, dark is the the swell of a cello line rising up from the depths and the enfolding security of a blanket as the snow taps insistently at the window at twilight.
So this solstice, I’m not celebrating the return of the light. I’m glad you are! That’s great! But for me, this night is not about the sun breaking in and growing in stature. Rather, this is about the Longest Night, the Most Holy Night, the night when the rejuvenating, healing, magic power of the dark is at its height. Let the sun have her glory in the summertime: this night is for the bright pinpricks of stars and the slivered thumbnail of the moon setting quietly amid the bare abstractions of winter trees and the softness of newfallen snow.
Hail the Solstice Night!
Header image: “Sliver Moon,” Travis Wiens/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND.