In the dead of winter, it appears that darkness is devouring the world. People need a little cheering up, and with our ubiquitous sense of hope, the ancients devised a way to cheer themselves up. That way was to light a fire in the darkness. And not just the ancients--still today, we celebrate light and allow our optimism to shine through.
We call the shortest day of the year,when there is more darkness than light, winter solstice; "sol" is a word coming from the Latin, meaning sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, we are celebrating winter solstice today. Our friends Down Under will not experience their winter solstice until June 21. Right now, they are sweating out their summr solstice!
Many books have used the winter solstice to portray the darkness of the atmosphere or the darkness of the human heart.
Simon Holt's The Devouring begins on solstice eve. Holt's teen book has been compared to the horrors of R. L. Stine or Stephen King. If that's your bag, this is your book.
Winter Girls, by Laurie Halse Anderson, the author of the well-known Speak, describes the darkness into which the human spirit can fall by following two anorexic girls through their obsession. Emotional and/or psyhological problems can plunge a person into a frozen frame of mind and devour the light-heartedness of life.
In Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith, the world of the wee blue Feegles is held in the icy grip of winter until the Wintersmith forgoes his infatuation with the Big Wee Hag, Tiffany Aching. Only in Tiffany's freedom can Spring ever come. This is the third book in the Tiffany Aching series.
For a complete overview of the winter solstice, anyone--not just kids--can go to Didi Lemay's picture book, A Winter Solstice Celebration. Or if you prefer an adult book on the subject, Dorothy Morrison's Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth is complete with history, traditions, decorations, recipes, crafts, and more.
The Scandinavian custom of celebrating Yule has spread to many other countries. Yule is another way of saying, "This is the shortest day of the year and we want more light. So 'Hurry, Spring!'" People make their own light by bringing a large log into the house and burning it in the fireplace.
Light festivals date back thousands of years; even ancient Egyptians had a celebration to welcome the return of the sun. Ancient Romans called their winter solstice celebration, Saturnalia in honor of the golden age of Saturn. They ate sumptous food and gave each other gifts. Other people put lights on trees or candelabra or carry candles while they sing festive songs to their neighbors.
As an added attraction this year, the total Lunar Eclipse is visible in North America for the first time since 1638. It begins at 1:32 AM (Eastern time) on the longest night of the year (December 21) and will last 72 minutes.
We shiver in the cold and darkness of winter, yet there is always that sense of hope shining through. We consider the whole of the day of December 21 to be the winter solstice, but in fact the solstice lasts only an instant. It's that tip of the fulcrum when fall is over and winter begins. The day after winter solstice an upswing starts; the nights get shorter; we see the sun shine longer each day. It will be a few months yet before the weather gets warm, but it's comforting to know the sun has not been devoured.