The first snow in November tempted us to think about snow for Christmas, but this week temperatures have been 10 to 20 degrees above normal. Two days of rain last week and again this week that felt like April, but here it is half-past December. Just when I think I know what to expect, once again I’m not wearing the right coat. A truly odd season.
The lobby of my apartment building sprouted Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving with evergreens draped across a fictitious mantelpiece, pointsettias lining the hallway. Day by day since, they blossomed into candy canes, tiny lights on strings surrounding mirrors and picture frames, sleighbells on doors. Last week they added a Christmas tree and today there are packages beneath it. In the elevator yesterday there was talk of putting a toy train there, if they can figure out how to keep it safe from toddlers.
Meanwhile the strip mall nearby has three vacant stores where a year ago were thriving businesses. I don’t think they all moved away, but I don’t know what changed for them. Did an owner retire? Did the landlord raise the rent a little too much? Have their customers migrated to on-line shopping sites?
This year it seems so much of daily life has been transferred from what the young people call ‘meatspace’ to ‘the cloud.’
I used to go into a shoe store and try on a few pairs before finding the ones that fit. But now I get better results ordering on-line. A box with three pairs arrives, and I choose the one that fits best. Then I send the rest back for full credit, less a small shipping charge. And the selection is nearly infinite.
My neighbor used to shop for groceries at the local supermarket, but now she subscribes to one of the meal-kit services. Each week she gets a box with all the ingredients for three meals, premeasured. A tiny bottle containing just two tablespoons of olive oil, a Styrofoam box holding one egg wrapped in tissue paper, four leaves of lettuce in an envelope, two flash-frozen lamb chops, and so on. She only goes to the store now for milk, and usually buys that from the corner convenience store because the supermarket lines are slower. It looks like fun, but it’s so much more expensive it’s hard to understand making that choice.
My kids used to go to the library to do research for term papers, but my grandkids just Google it. (I hope they don’t buy pre-written term papers from an academic cheating site.)
When I was first married, part of the fun of Christmas was Christmas shopping. We went out together, helping each other pick out the perfect gift for each parent and sibling. Then we would each try to sneakily buy the perfect gift for the spouse without getting caught.
Now all that is happening sitting at the computer. Is it still fun?
In my apartment window a lighted 3-foot star shines down on the highway. I wonder how many drivers even see it, but every time I drive by, I look up and feel loved, home, safe. I might feel a bit braver if I added a circle around it, but most days the pentagram is enough, and I’m sure my Baptist neighbors feel easier about it without the circle, even if it does stay up all year.
In the supermarket today, in the airlock between doors, I saw a red-uniformed man ringing a bell to fundraise for the Salvation Army. My contribution to his Christmas spirit is to refrain from challenging him about the remarkable sexism and heterosexism of the religious charity he works for. I hope they pay him well, but can’t help wondering if he’s a volunteer. Or a conscript.
Even at the dentist I’m treated to a modern, upbeat rendition of ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.’ Every casual encounter ends with ‘Merry Christmas’ or at least ‘Happy Holidays,’ except on the elevator in my home building. Here, where we know we’ll see each other again before Christmas, the smalltalk question is, ‘Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?’Meanwhile I’ve been invited to family celebrations by various generous people, even some I know only slightly, concerned that I might be an orphan accidentally alone on Christmas. But of course it’s not ‘accidental’ — it’s not my holiday, so I decline most invitations with thanks. Several years in a row I worked in the hospital on Christmas Day, or Christmas night, or Christmas Eve, but this year there are enough non-Christian resident chaplains that they don’t need to hire one of us ‘occasional’ contractors and everyone still gets the day off who wants it. I’m working New Year’s Eve instead.
As a Pagan, this year I have a lovely array of Yule celebrations to choose from; I attend as many as I can fit into the calendar. Some will be high-energy celebrations of the Light with dozens of candles. Our UU congregation has a wheel of wood and hay that will be set on fire and rolled down the hill until it burns itself apart while we sing and cheer; other congregations host celebrations of the sun’s return or human re-enactments of the Earth’s annual journey around the sun.
Other gatherings will be calmer and a bit more introspective. Some of those celebrate the Dark.
One of my favorite questions just now is, ‘What do you value about the dark?’ Because the dark time IS valuable.
Seeds and babies require the dark for gestation.
Trees and humans require the dark for rest.
The planet requires the dark so the surface doesn’t overheat.
Desert animals need the dark so that can avoid dehydration.
Meditation allows spiritual renewal in a host of ways not easy to reach in the noise and bustle and light of midday.
When I need to find something in a pocket, it helps to close my eyes. I’m not ‘seeing’ what’s in there, but somehow turning off the visual stimulation of my surroundings makes it easier to feel for the right key or coin by touch.
What makes you uncomfortable in the dark?
The possibility of predators that see better than I do.
That so often it’s colder in the dark, and I’m often already cold in this time of year.
That it’s easy for me to misunderstand what is happening when I can’t see.
That our culture is so insistent on light that we blame the dark for things it is not doing, for things that are not bad.
That we use ‘dark’ as a label instead of ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous.’
Another great question: What do you love about the dark?
I love its softness. I love the clarity of the stars when the light of sun and moon has left the sky to them (at least when the skyglow of our cities is absent).
I love its restfulness. I love how much less distracted I am when my restless vision is not chasing everything that moves.
I love its watchful waitingness, as we wait patiently (or not) for seeds to sprout or babies to be born.
I love its protectiveness, that I can hide in it and not be seen by enemies or predators.
It’s useful to find out how much we really CAN still do when we can’t see, or can’t see very much.
For those of us who are, or have been, afraid of the dark, it’s useful to discover ways to cope.
What helps you in the dark time?
Warm blankets, hot tea or cocoa, singing harmony, late night conversation, deep magic, meditation, feline companions, cuddling, dancing, driving in snow, watching the sunset or getting up for the sunrise, going out at the dark of the moon to look at the milky way.
Who helps you through?
Family, covenmates, familiars, community. Wise leaders, supportive friends, people with more energy and flexibility than I have at the moment. Songs. Joy. Love and trust. Spirit. The Gods.
So as the Solstice approaches, I say: May your Yuletide be merry, and bright and dark by turns.