Oh, holy night

Yesterday was the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, the official beginning of winter.

I love the paradox inherent in winter: While the first day of the season is the beginning of our walk toward increasing light, it is also the first day of the most barren weeks of the year.

As I shared last week, I’ve struggled with Christmas. Although I was raised Catholic, consider myself indelibly shaped by the culture of that church, and still feel a profound sense of home on the (now) rare occasions I attend Mass, I am not a Christian. I’ve struggled to find a way to enter into the celebrations of this time of year that do not feel false. I’ve struggled to make my personal celebrations meaningful.

While I have no doubts that the holidays will continue to challenge me, this year’s Solstice provided wonderful respite from the struggle.

I wish I could share visual images to supplement my words, but the one at the top of this post is the only one I captured. Too often, a camera removes me from an experience–and I did not want to experience the Solstice through the filter of my camera lens. So, my words will have to paint the picture for you.

After some fussing with trying to keep alive a holiday tradition that no longer fits, our good friend Lisa and I decided that we would do what we could with what we had–a few hours on the night of Solstice with just she and Cane and me.

I made a simple chicken and rice soup. Cane baked bread. We lit a fire and many, many candles. Our decorations are spare this year–a tree, our stockings, a bit of greenery, and the afore-mentioned many candles. We intended to play our collection of vinyl  Christmas records, but we quickly tired of changing them and switched to shuffle from Cane’s music collection. This meant our special night was, at one point, graced with likes of AC/DC. And it was good. :-)

We did not mention gifts ahead of time. Those have never been part of our tradition, but I planned to give Lisa a set of the bookmarks I made this week (my more edgy ones, if bookmarks can be edgy, as she is the friend who would most appreciate them), and she surprised us with Dr. Bonner’s soap and some dark chocolate.

This is what gift-giving should be, I think:  Simple, spontaneous, thoughtful items freely given that required no sacrifice on the part of the giver. It would have been fine if neither of us  had something for the other, but we were each delighted with what we gave and received.

A few weeks ago, Lisa and I had talked about what we thought the solstice should be about. We talked about the metaphors of darkness and light. (We met as fellow English teachers. What else need I say?) We talked about the dark spaces within each of us, and the purifying qualities of flame. We decided that the night of the Solstice would be a good time to clear some room in our shadow sides (yes, we reached back deep into our college days and dug up Jung) and make room for new things we want to bring in.

Over our simple dinner (no slaving for hours in the kitchen, no feeling overly stuffed after eating), we each talked about the things we want to leave behind as we enter the new year and the things we want to bring in. After eating, we moved into the living room and sat near the fire to continue our talk.

We want the kinds of things we all want, I think. More acceptance of hard things. More presence in our lives as we’re living them today. More honesty. More laughter. More time to read. More time with the right people. More embracing of the good, full lives we have, less seeking something else outside of them.

We ate and drank only a little, but we laughed a lot. We shared some hard truths. When we felt sure of what we wanted to let go, and what we want to let in, we wrote each on slips of paper. We took turns putting them into the fire. We sort of cheered as each burst into flame. We were both serious and not, simultaneously.

At some point, Lisa leaned back on our lumpy sofa and said, “Your home has become such a nice space. It feels really good in here. It’s very sweet.”

It feels that way to us, too.

As I looked this morning at the one photo I took, I saw that it captured pretty much everything that is important about our home. We still have two different colors of window trim. Our stockings are mismatched, but much loved. Candles burn from thrift store holders, and the Santa presiding over our mantel has only one arm.

Our tree will never be decorated in accordance with a theme. It is filled with ornaments I’ve bought for all of us each year to commemorate something about who we are at this point in time.  There’s a scooter, a cell phone, an artist, a reading bear, a robot, a ball with a beautiful rose painted on it.

At some point, sooner than I will like, I will have to pack up a box for each child to take to his or her own home. Our tree will not be the same. I’m sure it will make me cry. As it should.

But last night, all the ornaments were there, even if the children weren’t. The fire was warm, the lights glowed. It was all good, and the evening felt sacred in a way I  haven’t experienced in a long, long time.

To get here, I’ve had to clear a lot out of our holidays. I’ve had to let a lot go. I felt fairly terrible when, last weekend, one child looked around our (I thought) decorated house and asked, “When are we going to decorate for Christmas?” I let go of my desire for simplicity and gave permission for her to look through the decorations and add what she’d like. She put a simple wooden garland around our banister and was happy with that. So was I.

If there is anything I am taking away from the holidays this year, it is this: Less is more. The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last 12 months is that saying “no” to one thing always means saying “yes” to something else. We can find abundance in barrenness, and light in the darkest day of the year.

I’m pretty sure we won’t be sharing with you until we see the other side of the line between this year and the next. Cane and I both wish all of you peace, joy, comfort, safety, laughter, the right kind of tears, and much, much light in the coming days.

This (sorta) Old Life:  Solstice celebration