of Darkness and Light
Kevin B. Burk, author of The Relationship Handbook: How to
Understand and Improve Every Relationship in Your Life.
The end of December is a time of many celebrations and holidays. But whatever your religious, spiritual or cultural affiliation, there is a universal holiday that we often overlook. This holiday is the reason we place so much significance on the last week or so of December, and celebrating it predates every other holiday and event by thousands of years.
So what is this holiday? The Winter Solstice.
The Winter Solstice is the time of the greatest darkness. This year, it fell on Wednesday, December 21, when the Sun entered the sign of Capricorn (at 10:35 a.m. Pacific Time). This was the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere). The Autumnal Equinox occurred on September 22, when the Sun entered the sign of Libra. "Equinox" comes from the Latin meaning equal (equi) darkness or night (nox). On the equinox, light and dark, day and night are equal. From the Autumnal Equinox to the Winter Solstice, however, the nights grow longer and the days grow shorter, and on the Winter Solstice, night seems to triumph over day.
Consider the Yin-Yang symbol: the interlocking black and white tadpoles in a circle. This symbol teaches about the natural cycles of darkness and light. At the center of the greatest darkness, there is a seed of light; and at the center of the greatest light, there is a seed of darkness. No matter how dark it may seem to be, there is always a spark of light; likewise, the light will never completely eradicate the darkness.
The secret of the Winter Solstice is seen in the Yin-Yang symbol. Even in this time of greatest darkness, there is still a spark of light. And indeed, each day after the Winter Solstice, we begin to experience more light and less darkness as the light returns and the darkness is forced to recede.
It's interesting to note that the Earth itself is a Yin-Yang symbol. While December 21 is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, in the Southern Hemisphere, it is the Summer Solstice. The time of the greatest darkness in the North is the time of the greatest light in the South.
In ancient times, the Winter Solstice was a time for ritual and celebration; it also marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. The ancients did not know if the Sun would ever come back, and they would hunt and sacrifice animals to encourage the return of the Sun. Tribal members would make loud noises, beat drums, scream and shout to scare off the darkness. (The idea that carols should be sung in tune is a very modern conceit!)
The Winter Solstice is the time of the greatest contraction. It is also the time when the Earth is the most real. The elemental spirits that rule the day during the Summer Solstice have all returned to the Earth and are the least active and the least present at the Winter Solstice. Shakespeare understood this: You won't find a single sprite of faerie in The Winter's Tale; yet they are the essence of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Winter Solstice is the time of the greatest potential. We have gathered all of our resources. Because it is the time of the greatest contraction, it is also the time for new expansion. Out of this stillness comes new life. The Earth, and indeed the world, has finished inhaling, and now begins the slow exhale where we begin to express and explore our plans and our dreams.
I've been living in San Diego, California for over 17 years now, and there is something very disorienting about it. In San Diego, we don't have seasons. It's sunny around 300 days a year, and usually quite warm. Thanks to global warming, I don't remember the last time I had to wear a coat in the winter. I know years ago there were always a few weeks when I would need a coat, scarf and gloves in the morning, but I don't remember the last time it dropped below freezing.
I know I'm not getting any sympathy from my readers in the North, but believe it or not, I'm not bragging. There is something very disconcerting about being so completely removed from the cycles of nature. "Winter" in San Diego is marked by rain (usually) and not much else. We don't have Spring or Fall. We have "Summer" and "Rain" and that's it. And after 17 years, I'm feeling the effects of this.
Now, as most of you know, I grew up in New Orleans, so snow is not a part of my cultural conditioning. I had three years of it in college in Connecticut (and one in London), and that was more than enough for me, thank you very much. But at least in New Orleans, we had seasons. Summer was oppressively hot and humid. It almost never snowed in the Winter (only twice in the 18 years I lived in New Orleans), but there was almost always a week or two of nasty, damp, biting cold. And Spring and Fall in New Orleans made up for everything else. There was a transition between the extremes that I always enjoyed as "jacket weather." The air was brisk, it was usually windy, and while it was too warm for a coat, it was too cold to go without anything, so I could wear a windbreaker or a light jacket. That's my favorite kind of weather, and it simply doesn't exist in San Diego. I had to go to Seattle and Portland last year to experience it.
I visited some family in Florida over the holidays several years ago, and had the same issues. It was almost 90 degrees in Orlando on Thanksgiving. To me, there's just something wrong with this picture. The only place you should be able to wear Bermuda shorts in December is Bermuda.
There is something about not experiencing four seasons that makes me feel somehow disconnected from the necessary cycles of darkness and light. The cycles exist in everything that lives, and we don't need four seasons to connect with these cycles; however, the seasons have always been the most obvious reminder of the cycles, at least for the Earth. Because the Earth is our home, we are very much aligned with the cycles of light and darkness that flow through the Earth. One of the side effects of progress, civilization and technology, however, is that we have, at least as a culture, largely lost touch with the Earth.
Perhaps I'm so aware of this because I'm such a big fan of irony. I'm a professional astrologer-someone who studies and observes the cycles of the planets as they move through the heavens-and I don't remember the last time I looked at the night sky for more than a few seconds at a time. I do all of my "star gazing" on the computer. I wouldn't know what Jupiter looked like in the sky unless it was pointed out to me.
I know I'm missing out on something important. I know that if I took the time to make the connection between the night sky and the symbols on my computer that I would experience a deep and profound, and very personal connection with the Universe. Unfortunately, I also know that forging this deep, profound and personal connection with the Universe would mean I would miss "Desperate Housewives" and I'm just not prepared to do that right now.
Being self-employed, working from home, and not having any children in school further removes me from any reminders of the cycles. Since I work when I have work, and don't when I don't, weekends aren't particularly special to me-and the various three-day weekends that most people live for barely show up on my personal radar. From the age 5 through age 22, my life was governed by the cycles of school (plus, as I've already mentioned, I also experienced four seasons on a regular basis during that time). I remember it took me a few years after I moved to San Diego and started working before I stopped putting special emphasis on the summer months. Now, I know it's the end of summer when the television commercials start promoting "Back to School" sales.
And yet, as much as I bemoan my personal disconnection from these cycles, I also have to admit that I am aware of how they still govern my life. This article, for example, could only be written in December. I'm never this introspective in July. A part of me still looks forward to the last week of the year as a time to relax, to finish up old projects and clear the way for the new. It's always a slow time for me in terms of client work and deadlines, and I'm usually able to take the time to do things for myself, or to work on personal projects.
Even without changes in the temperature, it's hard to ignore the fact that it gets dark in the late afternoon, now. The days in San Diego may remain stubbornly bright and sunny, but they are also unquestionably shorter. And now that we're on the other side of the Winter Solstice, the days will begin to grow incrementally longer. Yin is slowly giving way to Yang.
If you stop and create a few moments of peace amid the hectic bustle of the holidays, and allow yourself to connect with the Earth, you can almost sense the Earth holding its breath and preparing to exhale. We still have an opportunity to connect with the energy of the Winter Solstice (or, if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, with the energy of the Summer Solstice). We can connect with this pause as we experience the time of the greatest darkness and sense the ever-strengthening pull of the light.
On a personal, individual level, we need to notice the changes in the seasons. We need to mark at least the extremes in the cycles of darkness and light. It's easier to do this at the Solstices than at the Equinoxes because the shift in energies is more dramatic.
Take a moment and experience the truth that something far bigger than our lives has just occurred. This year in particular, it should be noticeable, since we've just come out of some particularly difficult planetary retrogrades (Mercury and Mars are both, finally, moving forward again).
Of course, we're also experiencing yet another shift right now: Venus is almost stationery, and will turn retrograde on December 24th. The call and the lesson of Venus retrograde is to investigate and question the things that we value and love, and to explore the dynamics of every one of our relationships. (But that's a subject for another article.)
For now, I simply want to wish each and every one of you a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.
Kevin B. Burk is the author of
Relationship Handbook: How to Understand and Improve Every
Relationship in Your Life.
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