Once upon a time, most humans used to sleep in two shifts, commonly referred to as first and second sleep.
Historian A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past describes how households at this time [pre-industrialized Europe] retired a couple of hours after dusk, woke a few hours later for one to two hours, and then had a second sleep until dawn.
During this waking period, people would relax, ponder their dreams, or have sex. Some would engage in activities like sewing, chopping wood, or reading, relying on the light of the moon or oil lamps. https://www.sciencealert.com/humans-used-to-sleep-in-two-shifts-maybe-we-should-again
Living before Electric Light
Let’s take a moment and imagine life before electricity on the longest night of the year:
The shadows began growing early as the sunset began even earlier today. You’ve had to carry a lamp with you to finish your outdoor chores. You’ve felt pressured for weeks knowing daily tasks needed to be completed in record time as they are accomplished more easily with adequate daylight. Now, in the early evening, you march tentatively back to your home, aware of the increasing cold and feeling the presence of the unknown in the void-like shadows. Illuminated by the dim, flickering light of your lantern flame, your eyes dart between the path in front of you, the strange noises surrounding you, and the uneven ground on which you walk. Darkness brings out predators in men, beasts and spirits. You live in a set of small, dark rooms. Even when the candles are lit the shadows and the sense of being hunted continues. Small creaks and squeaks seem amplified as you realize your nerves are on edge. The night is LONG and knowing that only makes it seem more intense.
Your rooms are warm as you sit down to your evening meal, realizing how much harder it is to see to make certain nothing is in your soup that shouldn’t be. Gathering up a book to read by the fire will calm your nerves but your eyes tire more quickly in the darkness. You find your way to your sleeping cupboard and crawl in, falling fast asleep.
In what seems like only minutes, you are awake again having heard something shift in your room. It’s not unusual to wake up again, however, you don’t really know how long you’ve been asleep nor how much longer you have until sunrise. You get up again to stoke the fire and perhaps you must go outside to tend to the dog. Looking up into the inky sky, the stars are bright and shining, reminding you how small and insignificant you are. It feels unsafe looking up as there is nothing there to hold you down and you just might float away. The smoke from the chimney floats low and swirls downward toward you in misty shapes and you can smell the musky, dankness of the muddy pathway that winds past your home and back into the dark.
Winter Solstice is a time to honor the Dark.
“The night is dark and full of terrors,” (Melisandre, the red priestess in Game of Thrones). Nighttime is when we are least able to occupy our minds with tasks and conversations and we are forced to deal with the memories and pain hidden within our subconscious, which normally we are able to easily push aside during the daylight.
What is “The Dark”, you ask? And why the hell would we want to honor it? In my own spiritual practices, one strives to attain a balance between all things. The Dark, when working in a dualist philosophy, is a catchall phrase that can refer to all the things we stuff into our subconscious mind, our fears, anger, and trauma. It can also mean rest, quiet, and stillness. Therefore, it’s a simplification of all things that are opposite to The Light, and active states.
Observance of the Winter Solstice as a spiritual practice is when we choose to see the delineation between the light and the dark. Darkness is just as healing and necessary as the other side of the spectrum. Specifically, for me, a Leo who is most comfortable in the sunshine and lots of activity, it’s a specific time to choose to chill out. To say NO to all the things my mind and body want to do and to STOP, be STILL and go within. I spend much of December and January and sometimes up to 4 months letting things go, reviewing all the things on my plate and removing extraneous shit from my life.
When one starts dumpster diving through the refuse of their trauma, one tends to find a bunch of stuff you thought was your’s but actually belongs to someone else and they convinced you it was your fault. So, you may find interesting things like your sister Susie’s tricycle but she says you broke it so now it’s your broken tricycle to carry around. We tend to carry our past with us even when we don’t realize it.
Some Americans are becoming more and more disassociated from the ancient practices of understanding the Great Mysteries. Vision Quests, Mouna, Seider, the dumb supper, and even the death vigil are all moments that once were specific to allow silence and reflection. When the surface level of consciousness gives way to the inner self, it allows the infinite information of the universal/ancestral mind to bubble up from the depths and download into a new awareness and guidance. These practices were often associated with one’s ancestors who provided knowledge during life and in death for generations. (Of course, I brought the conversation back to death… that’s why you are reading this blog isn’t it?)
Activities for the Dark
The Winter Solstice provides the best time of year for staying in, resting and doing self-care. Some of my favorite ways of spiritually honoring the longest night is to plan a time for silence. Turn off the phone, TV, and social media as well as social engagements. I have often taken the time immediately after Christmas until the first few days of the New Year as a retreat, not a vacation mind you, a retreat from the world!
A Silent Retreat: remove yourself from as many external interactions as possible including reading, speaking and eye contact (although journaling is encouraged). This practice can also be modified to extend for hours or weeks depending on your goals. Planning meals and snacks in advance can really make it less stressful. You may also choose to fast or detox, however, if you choose to do so I suggest giving yourself a few more days to allow the body to have time to adjust, as it may bring on a headache or other reactions. Several days might be needed to just sleep before you really can get into experiencing silence and doing nothing. Personally, I highly recommend practicing Mouna at least annually! It can take many days to get through your inner monologue before you start hearing the life-changing messages that come through silence.
Sitting in Nature can be done on the night of the Solstice or can last only an hour or for days as a Vision Quest. Sitting out in nature, in the cold, may make it more difficult but doing it at night is even harder. I recommend taking a sub-zero sleeping bag with you, taking off your shoes and finding a comfy location/position that you can stay in for as long as you want. Pre-made meals or fasting can also be incorporated and bring a small spade and toilet paper if you are staying for many hours or days. Also, only stay as long as you feel the experience is safe and useful to continue. While in some areas of the country the cold may be dangerous but if it’s just your mind and boredom making it difficult then try to stick it out past your inner rant until you find your meditative state.
Working with the Darkness is a practice that some may find unusual but it is certainly a practice in discipline. Pretend you are having a blackout and do not use any artificial lights. If you are not comfortable using candles then the fake, flickering LED candles will do the trick for this exercise. You can cook your meal and make your tea as usual. Observe how darkness feels and how YOU feel about being in the dark. Obviously, reading, sewing and other crafts become quite difficult. Don’t watch TV or use your phone as they emit light, which will affect your brain. If you continue this as a daily evening exercise for a few days or weeks, your sleep patterns may shift as well as your personality. Some even have a burst of creativity and productivity, as you adjust to a different circadian rhythm; it’s quite the experience.
The Dumb Supper is a dinner prepared and eaten in silence with place settings and meals set out for those who have passed on in addition to those who are still currently incarnated and attending, like your family. This practice, traditionally observed at Samhain, can be as simple as including places (and Meals) for your passed loved ones at the Yule/Christmas dinner table.
Ancestral Libations had been a tradition for eons and unfortunately have dwindled into the “woo-woo crazy” category. In classical Rome, water or beer may be poured on the grave or poured down permanently installed libation pipes. Offerings were required to honor the Dead, keep them at peace and prevent being haunted by restless ghosts. Wealthy families would build kitchens in the cemeteries to make it easier to prepare food and sup with their deceased. I keep a small table on the corner of the landing in the middle of our staircase to serve as an altar for placing food, drink, candles and incense for this purpose. All of these make good offerings, but I particularly seem to have upstairs and downstairs house-ghosts so the open stairway is middle-ground. For my family, I have a separate ancestor altar in my bedroom for my beloved Dead where I place photos, flowers, candles and libations. Can you just imagine the raised eyebrows one would garner in this era if you were to put out a full picnic next to GrandPapa’s headstone? (Yes, you did hear me giggle, as that idea just makes my heart swell! Perhaps it resonates with you as well?)
The longest night of the year is a rare event. Memento Mori, it may also be your last opportunity to have a deeply spiritual experience not only with Nature, as she deepens into her own time to restore and reset but to do so yourself. Rest your body, your mind, and your soul. Let go of daily expectations of yourself for a few hours. Turn off all the interactions and listen to what’s going on inside your head and heart. I officially give you permission to have a pajama day, eat crackers and veggies, last night’s pizza and sip your tea next to the fire.