Midwinter Delusions

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.

Winter begins today, or so says the calendar.

The first day of winter is traditionally linked to the winter solstice, that point in the earth's wobble when the night is longest in the Northern Hemisphere and the sun crosses the sky low in the south. After the solstice is reached the days start getting longer.

Why then, if the nights are going to start getting shorter and the days warmer, should this be called the beginning of winter? Isn't this really the middle of winter, or midwinter?

Winter, by this reckoning, really began about 45 days ago or sometime in early November. And it will give way to early spring in mid-February. Wishful thinking.

Why is it that the coldest and stormiest days of winter seem to fall sometime after the solstice, in January or February when daylight is growing? Is it a build-up of cold arctic air in those long December nights that finally gets loose and spills southward into higher latitudes?

Correspondingly, the hottest days of summer seem to come in early August, which is well past the summer solstice of June 21.

Midwinter is an especially difficult time -- an end time, the passing of a season and a year. Left alone in these dark times, it is hard not to reflect on losses and failures, vanished dreams and extinguished lives. What went wrong? How did things get so bad?

Everywhere we look, there is the threat of terrorism and war, economic and environmental distress, hunger and homelessness, illness, loneliness, neighborhood violence and families in crisis.

Safety is an illusion. Wealth is but a fancy whim. You can't take it with you, after all. And what is it all for, in the end? What's the purpose? What's the use?

In harmony with this bleak midwinter mood, the frosty wind moans. The earth stands hard as iron. The river is like a stone.

It is easy, in these bleak moments, to imagine the worst: endless winter. Perhaps the nights will keep getting longer and blacker, the weather colder and the world more lifeless. All hope will freeze.

In complete darkness, any light will do. Against a pitch black night the smallest flame is like a beacon. Subtract just a moment of gloom and add it to the length of the day and it's a cause for joy and celebration. Salvation emerges from the darkened corner of a dead-end street.

Christmas is a night festival, staged in darkness. The nativity story occurs in a shadowy stable. The shepherds who visit are guided by a star in the darkened heavens. And once the child is born the anxious parents, warned by a restless dream, flee into the desert "by night" to carry their child out of harm's way. Like us, they are lonely, cold and frightened.

We cling to the faith represented by a newborn babe, a small flicker of hope in a sea of melancholy. Grow, please grow. 

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