The Light at the End of the Year
I’ve always enjoyed the parade of holidays that come toward the end of the year, when the harvest is in, and friends and families gather for the great meals that are spread and shared across these final days of the calendar. There always seems to be more music too, and gifts given, and such happy conversations; and along with all that, there’s a certain deepening of spiritual regard that’s made possible, as the past year is reviewed and the coming year is received.
The fulcrum of the season takes place Dec. 21, a little after 3:00 in the morning, during the longest night of the year. This is the Winter Solstice – when the sun pauses in its journey south, turning to begin its long climb back north toward us, and eventually toward the long days of the coming summer. This most ancient of holidays celebrates the paradox that lies at the very foundation of all religion: the return of the light from the darkest night, signifying promise and redemption, completion and a new beginning.
The Greeks were the first to name the days of calm during the winter solstice the “halcyon days,” for Alcyone, whose grief for the death of her husband was so pitied by the gods that they changed her into the halcyon, the bird we call the kingfisher. Her father Aeolus, the Greek god of winds, smoothed the waves of the sea for the seven days surrounding the solstice each year, so that her nest and her young could be safe on the shore. This tranquility that makes new life possible is invoked with each greeting of peace on earth, and good will towards all.
Although it can become a hectic time, what with the parties and the shopping and the effort of decoration, this holiday season is best observed as a timeless time – a welcome recess from the constant interruptions of a meaningful life by numbing, routine errands and chores. It is a time to rest from the demands and pressures of the year, to consider the larger picture of who we are, and why we are here, and so renew a sense of dimension and direction.
God Himself took such time off from His Work, King James says in chapter two of Genesis: “God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” I remember being told as a child this meant to pause whenever I’ve completed something – anything – and to look at it, to savor and appreciate it – and my part in it – before going on. This grants the satisfaction needed to alleviate any apprehension we might feel about being adequate for attempting anything new.
What satisfies me most about this “seventh day” – that is, every Sabbath, every holiday – is the resting from my work in order to remind myself of the rest of my life, and to contemplate the completion of myself in the completion of my work. This is not just to be happy that the labor is done with, but to digest and to be nourished by its fullness and accomplishment, to be content with who it is I am, by recognizing and enjoying the activity as well as the fruits of my effort.
On New Year’s Eve, when our children were young, we would talk about what had happened during the year just done, and what might take place in the year to come. Then we listened to recordings of younger voices from the years before, remembering the past and wondering about the future, year after year, sorting out our lives and ourselves. Then we would open all the doors and windows, and hear the sounds of celebration accumulate outside as they grew and drew about our home, while the joy of the start of another New Year spread out throughout the night.
Considering the events of the past year involves seeing them without the filters of resentment and regret, and learning to forgive, to appreciate, and to be grateful. Such forgiveness, I believe, is neither condoning nor forgetting, but rather acknowledging what has taken place without the unnecessary effort of blame, nor the burden of shame. Then we may more easily measure the value of these events to truly appreciate them, and find our most grateful response.
In this way, may we also find that place where each one of us belongs, around the holiday table and within this teeming world, as I raise my glass in salute to this wonderful timeless time, saying:
As we are satisfied by the majesty
of those resounding final chords
that resolve great symphonies,
so let us now be grateful
for the holidays of this season
that bring this past entire year
to a complete and peaceful close.