or whatever reason, the winter solstice has always seemed to me to be the real holiday—relatively obscure, comparatively unheralded, but the one that actually mattered among the host of winterfests that swirl about these dark days of December.
Of course that always covers a certain amount of ambiguity—way back when I was still trying to figure out who drained the ocean so it could be cleaned and what the relationship of frogs to crickets was I’m sure I just accepted whatever madness was going on in society at large as the way things were, but I don’t really remember it. It seems like I’ve always known that the earth was tilted at an angle from the sun and that the direction the axis is facing determines the seasons, and that there were holidays associated with it.
Ours of course was Krissmus, and I can still recall my incredulity when my mother explained that the Kriss was really Christ and the name was a corruption of Christ-mass. It was bad enough that Santa was really my parents sneaking around when we were asleep, but on top of that the coolness of the holiday really evaporated when it turned out to be just a tawdry advertisement for some religious cult.
And the words to the carols they taught us in school—a relentless drumbeat of propaganda. Holy infant, the little Lord Jesus, remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day. (I liked the part about the witch, his mother Mary until my mother explained that it was which, not witch; another cool feature down the tubes.)
Some of it made sense to me—the lights reminding us of the return of the sun, the evergreen and holly wreaths symbolizing the promise of spring, and so on and so forth. And presents and fudge and nuts and all that was always welcome. But by fifth grade I refused to call it Christmas; the Encyclopedia Americana said that Isaac Newton was born on 25 December, so it was Newton’s Birthday for me, and I had an altercation with my fundamentalist teacher over my holiday drawing of a prism splitting a beam of light into a rainbow or whatever; she thought I should have portrayed the three wise men following the star to Bethlehem, a task not only against my inclinations, but far beyond my artistic ability.
In all fairness, I did enjoy her regaling us with accounts of “Christmas is Many Lands,” covering the customs of leaving shoes out for St. Nicholas, wearing a crown of candles for St. Lucia, going out trick-or-treating for Hogmanay, and so on. (I may not be recalling the details correctly.) And seeing her go ballistic when some other kid spelled Christmas with an X (Don’t you dare take the Christ out of Christmas!) was, well, unforgettable.
It was a dark wet solstice three years later (and how great the distance was between fifth and eighth grade then) when in English we stopped by Frost on the darkest evening of the year. I knew very well whose woods these were by then, but it had never occurred to me that the poem might well take place on the solstice, as one of my classmates interpreted it. God, those woods were lovely, dark, and deep…
Many miles later down that road (but only five years in real time) when I was trying to learn Greek while my fellow-students were out “marching and burning” as the late great Harlan Howard put it I heard what I took to be the great solstice song of all time, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”. For a moment I felt the ice slowly melting even if it did seem like years since it had been clear. It wouldn’t last; ahead of me lay suicidal thoughts and madness, years of depression occasionally lit by moments of sheer raw panic, but for that moment it was all right.
Here comes the sun, everybody—happy solstice!