The autumn show is over and at the midwinter solstice we move into the true darkness of winter. The trees appear barren. Only the ash provides a sense of colour, its clusters of seed pods like bronze parcels amid the branches. The fallen leaves are still plentiful in patches on the ground, but they are no longer crispy, forming instead a damp, rotting mulch. The grass seems greener, having been hidden by leaves for so long, but the ground is sodden and muddy. As yet, there has been only a single, short snowstorm that, once over, left no signs that it had ever arrived. Our weather has been a patchwork of rain storms, tidal surges, gales and some milder days. But now, the reward of getting up before dawn is to see the glitter of frost on the grass and to feel it crisp beneath your feet.
The poet John Donne called the solstice the year’s midnight. This is darkness proper, when the flaming leaves no longer light the season and the trees are desolate silhouettes against the lowering skies. This, I feel, is a different kind of darkness to that of autumn. The autumn darkness is rich, tender and expectant. The winter darkness, once the solstice and the festivities of the season are over, can be bleak, cold and hollow. It will be a long time until we feel the energy of spring. But out of darkness come hope, light and dreams. At the solstice, the night is the longest of the year, but at dawn, the sun will be reborn and the days will become longer.
There is rich symbolism at this time of year. The old pagan symbols merge with the Christian ones and those that came much later, so that it can be difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Whatever your beliefs, there is a real magic in the wealth of symbols and stories that span the season. And all of them, at heart, celebrate similar themes: the light, hope and benevolence emerging from the darkness. Trees hung with offerings are an ancient representation of the gifts and wishes of the season. The glitter of tinsel, candles and fairy lights proclaim the rebirth of the light. Evergreens brought across the threshold affirm our hope that life is still with us. Feasting and festivities give us comfort against the cold and the gloom.
I have always revelled in the creativity of the season. In my childhood, before the Internet, DVDs and satellite TV, the holidays were a time full of creative pursuits. There would be new books and music received as gifts, new movies premiered on the TV, new television shows made for Christmas. But there was also time – unbroken time to create and to enjoy the creations of others. For me, the ease of downloading a book or song, of buying a DVD, has taken away some of the excitement once associated with this time of year, while the responsibilities of the season can prevent us absorbing its magic.
If you’re feeling harried by the demands of the season and feel that it leaves little space for you to focus on your creativity, the solstice is a good time to pause. The long hours of darkness on that night provide ample time for reflection on how your creativity will be reborn. Use the night to midwife a fresh creative spirit: this time of birth is an optimal moment – anything is possible. Your creative life begins anew – how will it be different this year? What dreams did you dream in the autumn darkness that you can now give birth to and guide, like children, to their full potential?
After the reflection of the long night, you could go out and greet the dawn. The sunrise after the longest night is one of the gifts of the year, but there will be other gifts you have within you to help you create – those you were born with, those you have earned through experience. This is a time when we give to others, but consider also what you can give to yourself to ensure your creative spirit is nurtured throughout the year.