The Return of the Light: Shortest Day and Darkest Night

Whether you are a Christian, Jewish, a neo-pagan or celebrate Kwansa, all the ‘deep mid-winter’ festivals have one thing in common. At this darkest time in the Northern Hemisphere, we celebrate light.

Jesus is revered as the ‘Light of the World.’ In Hanukah Jews celebrate the ‘Festival of Lights.’ Pagans recount the tale of how the Corn King, having been cut down and sacrificed at Harvest, is reborn by the Great Mother; even though the winter solstice is the shortest day, it marks the return of the Light and lengthening days.

Interwoven with this theme of light is the urge to remind ourselves that the earth will wake up out of its long sleep with new growth.
Psychologically, it makes sense that many of us with European ancestors, drag indoors any bit of evergreen to remind ourselves that no matter how cold it is outside, life always renews.

It seems that many of our mid-winter customs involve this form of sympathetic magic. Light candles and remind yourself that the days will lengthen. Deck the halls with boughs of holly and keep the memory of spring growth green.

Here in Ireland our winters are relatively mild by North American standards. We might have a day’s snowfall of a no more than five inches each winter. That tends to melt off in lower elevations within a day or so.

What is often a surprise to visitors from North America is the darkness. At Christmas it is twilight by 3:00 pm. A very smudgy, sludgy dawn breaks after 8am. Days are often overcast so that daylight feels to be at a very low wattage. This is not a country for people who are prone to SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder). If the Irish are reputed to be a melancholy race then it is all down to longitude and latitude.

It’s particularly important to haul yourself out to walk on dry days and soak up what rays we get. It is during these walks close to the High Days that I begin to assemble nature’s greenings for wreaths.

Most people use wire coat hangers to make a frame for the wreath. I have the option of going outdoors and cutting an appropriate length of willow, or sally as it’s called in Ireland. Given our boggy land willow is rampant; it also is nature’s way of draining soggy land. The incredibly flexible sally can be bent into shape and secured with a bit of raffia.

This is spruce plantation country so evergreen is plentiful. So is holly and ivy. I prefer to leave the holly berries for the birds. A painted hazel nut makes a handy stand-in. The absolutely Irish flourish to any holiday wreath, however, is gorse.

Gorse, or furze, sometimes blooms as early as December although some years we may not see it until after the holiday is over. Its flower is an absolutely brilliant gold colour. Out on storm riven moorland the winter gorse is like a beacon telling us that spring is coming soon.
It’s a shout of joy, nature’s reminder of Light in the world.

Last year my neighbour and I got together to make our Yule wreaths.
She had hay from her own field to make the shapes. I had the willow for the frame. We both had a collection evergreens collected from our own townlands, the Irish name for our country localities flung outside the boundaries of village or town.

The gorse flower, carefully pruned to avoid the needle sharp stickles, filled the shed with its characteristic scent that is a blend of vanilla and coconut. We added the spruce and holly and ivy. But the gorse flowers were the showstoppers. Their golden flowers, not traditional for wreaths, made a real splash of light during the overcast mid-winter days.

Along with the candles lit in our windows on Christmas Eve, the gorse on the door wreath sent out the message – The Light has returned!

About BeeSmith

I was born in Queens, N.Y, reared in Pennsylvania, did university in Washington, D.C. Then I moved to England for nineteen years. I lived first in London and then in Leeds. After my partner's sister died of cancer in 2000, we decided to take the leap of faith and move to Ireland to be nearer his family. Despite our friends thinking we were mad and feckless, it has worked out. The angels really do look after fools! We have a cottage on an acre and a quarter three miles from where the River Shannon rises. We have a polytunnel to grow vegetables and fruit organically, a small orchard of apple trees and plans to create a sacred space on the land over the rest of our lifetimes. We share our home with two tortoiseshell cats, Zelda and her daughter Zymina, and three dogs, Murphy, Pippin and Cara.

0 thoughts on “The Return of the Light: Shortest Day and Darkest Night

  1. Hi; We may have more winter in North America but certainly this year we have had more than our share of grey skies and gloomy weather where I live. It started last winter and lasted until the end of May. It resumed the second week of June and lasted until the third week of August in southren Nova Scotia. September and October were beautiful with lots of sunshine. November has had two nice sunny days and now it is grey and raining.

    Grey skies do play on the emotions. I combat this by brightening up the house with color. Rich browns, blues , yellows and reds for curtains, rugs, throws, quilts, potholders and anything that can have color.

    Growing up in a cement two room house my Grandma had Daddy paint the kitchen walls yellow, the ceiling blue and floor brown. We had the sky, sun and earth indoors and it was beautiful and never depressing whatever the weather or shortness of days!