I was always a summer kid when I was young. August was my favorite month -- hot, dry and sunny -- the last hurrah before school started.
Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania with few conifers, fall and winter meant bare brown branches, cloudy skies, and bleakness. Everything appeared to be dead, and I hated it, except for the Christmas season, when we brought evergreens into the house.
I never questioned the obvious. What did evergreens and a decorated tree have to do with the birth of Christ? It wasn't until I got much older that I read about the old pagan traditions that had been adopted by Christians. For thousands of years, many cultures observed the winter solstice as a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun.
In northern Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel (hence the name Yuletide). Northern Europeans brought evergreen shrubs and trees into their homes as a reminder that spring would return and green would once again cover the landscape. These were people much closer to the land than we are. I imagine them, in cold snow-covered lands, hoping and praying that the light would return, that they would once again find warmth and nourishment from the earth.
I don't hate fall and winter anymore; I know that life is continuing amidst the cold and barren landscape. And the truth is that most of our landscape here in Flagstaff is not so barren -- we live among gorgeous evergreens all year long.
But the desire and tradition persists: in the midst of midwinter's darkness, we want to fill our homes with light and warmth and greenery. Now, instead of celebrating Christmas, I celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. How amazing that these traditions of celebrating light during winter dark have persisted for thousands of years.
It says something about who we are as humans. Even with how "plugged in" we are, how removed we are from the rhythms of the earth and the seasons, we still celebrate the return of the light and the miracle of the earth's re-greening. We may have artificial trees and battery operated candles, but the ancient longing remains the same.
We obviously need plants to survive, but Jane Goodall suggests that there is something more. In Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, she writes, "For one thing, without plants, we wouldn’t exist.... So, for the entire ecosystem, plants are the underpinning. You start with the plants, and then the insects appear, and then the birds follow, and mammals come along. But it’s also more than that... we need them, in some deep psychological sense.
I believe that we have a deep-seated need to connect with living things, green things -- to surround ourselves with plants and animals. We may live in houses or apartments, but still, we are denizens of the earth -- dependent upon the sun, and waiting for spring every year.
"So the shortest day came, and the year died, And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world Came people singing, dancing To drive the dark away."*
To all my wonderful readers, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Welcome Yule!
*from the poem, The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper