Winterlight – How The Winter Season Helps Us Lean Into The Light
Winter encourages hibernation and a search for warmth. Rym Kechacha talks us through how this dark season helps us lean towards the light.
The body has its own preparations for winter, and every year it surprises me. I find I start to crave the sweetness stored in root crops. My skin wants to be covered in heavy wool, and I feel a yearning to be inside and nested within solid walls when night falls. But most of all, I find my body wants light. In the absence of the sun it wants candles, bonfires, the bright electric bulbs of modern homes. My body wants to bathe in all these kinds of man-made lights to chase away the leering darkness that squats on my house, on all our houses, just until spring comes again.
And I know I’m not alone because there’s a plethora of midwinter festivals, from all kinds of times and cultures, meant to give us a chance to remember that the sun will come back; to tell us everything we have tried to hide in the darkness will come to glow and grow again. Winter seeds in us the craving for festivals of lights: Divali; bonfire night; Halloween; even the trip to see the Christmas lights get switched on in town centres; even the glitter and sequins on the party dresses in the high street shops. Anything to lighten the gloom, anything to mimic the glow of the night’s natural illumination of stars we can’t usually see because of the clouds that sit low and leak drizzle.
But even as we’re calling the light back with the sympathetic magic of our Jack-OLanterns and our tinsel-covered Christmas trees, the winter calls again, pointing us towards the shadow side of festivals where it is singing of carnival and chaos and misrule. Every year, just as I feel the call of the light I also feel the craving for the kind of carousing that seems to make the darkness easier to bear. To drink something hot and spiced in a warm pub, eat something sizzling in fat until I have to loosen my waistband, to dance in the firelight until I need the chill night to cool my skin.
Sometimes the call is hard to hear in the depths of hibernation. This winter I am almost deaf to it; settling into a new town where I don’t know many people and growing big in belly with a baby due to be born in the new year. The darkness of the winter night has become a place to travel through quickly towards the light and warmth of my home. But I know it will be back. I’ll be able to turn my face away from it this year, decorate a conifer with electric light and revel in its cosiness, but I know in years to come the force of midwinter carnival will start to beckon me again, to drink, to eat and to dance the light back into the year.
There’s a kind of inherent mischief in dark, long nights, and it seems that if humans experience a winter they will invent a festival to honour that mischief. We might think we lead urban lives of disconnection from nature, and we might insist the traditions are bloated and inauthentic, but still we find ourselves sunk in Christmas celebrations with all its archetypes, and maybe even enjoying it. We feast and we exchange gifts and we burn things. We sit still in our houses with those we say we love most in the world to watch and wait while the world stops, just for a couple of days. We get drunk and we say things we don’t mean and hope our indiscretions will be forgotten and forgiven by January because it was Christmas after all, and you let things go a little at Christmas time. Who hasn’t said, ‘Oh I’ll leave that until after Christmas, I’ll worry about it then’? Is that because there’s the tiny hint of worry there, scratching away in a small, irrational place in our souls, that there will be no after Christmas? What if the sun doesn’t come back, for the first time, and we wasted that time getting our taxes ready instead of making merry?
Perhaps we need this time where we let the edges of ourselves blur so that if the sun doesn’t come back, we can bear the world of perpetual darkness we’ll live in. Maybe a topsy-turvy changing of the normal order of things helps us to accept the reality we live in. This is the pressure cooker theory of carnival, that really this instinct in us to follow the mischief in the long, dark nights is a force that keeps us shackled inside our hierarchies. We are more able to bear the drudgery of grey Monday mornings if we are warmed by the heat of our dancing on a Saturday night. We can face January’s privations if we are sustained by the memory of our New Year’s Eve bacchanalia. If we never let ourselves go, if we never feel the wildness overtake our bodies and souls in the darkness, we cannot be held responsible for what might take root in our repressed hearts.
I do not mean to say that private rituals of darkness and light are not valuable, or that a winter spent without alcohol and intoxicants is a wasted one, or that if you do not take part in a large, public festival of bright light and excess and chaos you are doing winter wrong. I mean to say that even if you think you have nothing to do with the natural way of things, the ancient conversations between the land and the sky are powerful and something in you not only hears their talk but leans closer to listen to more.
The only way I think you can escape it, if you should even want to, is to leave the biosphere entirely. Get to the tropics, head to the belt of the world where the nights and days never get so out of balance and the seasons swing between the yin and yang of wet and dry instead.
But if you’re here, towards the pole we call the Northern one, turn towards the darkness and listen to its whispers. Thank it for its gifts and tell it you’ll be there for whatever it wants to show you.