Marking the Darkest Days

Hans Gude--Vinterettermiddag--1847Here in the northern hemisphere, we are closing in on the darkest day of the year.  In my neck of the woods, the cold gray months are only beginning, and may last through April – but on the 21st, the sun will start returning to us (or, more objectively, we will start returning to the sun).

There are all sorts of mythological renditions of the sun’s yearly return.  I admit my favorite is Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, a book I adore and a film I watch every year.  This story of deities adjusting to a changing world, of the importance of believing in things (like justice and perhaps Santa Claus) that exist only if we believe in them, is my favorite Christmas story.

And what of “the” Christmas story?  The story I grew up with?  Despite that I no longer practice Christianity, I still love this, too.  It strikes me as the most hopeful, joyous story of the New Testament.  The moment of birth is one of sheer potential.  The image that speaks most emphatically to me is the simplest: A star in the darkness.  Light that shows us hope.  Light that shines at the start of (a) life.

For me now, this holiday is about light in the darkness, about hope in the face of winter’s long dark days, and the potential of the new year and the returning sun.  At or near the solstice, we bring light and brightness and greens into our home.  At the darkest time of year, we stage a holiday full of jollity and firelight and promise.  We shake our fist at the long black night – not to provoke it or exert any influence whatsoever over the night itself, which was here long before we came onto the scene – but to show that we are still alive and hale and whole, though the snow is deep and the sunlight scarce.  We gather together and feast and exchange gifts to show that we have put enough by and will share our goods and sustain each other while the plants that nourish us are resting as seed and roots.  We bring greenery into our homes to remind ourselves of the scent of the forest and the sight of leaves, of all the growth that will take place as the days warm.  And lo, we tilt toward the sun, the days lengthen, and – though there might yet be a long journey before spring – we find that we have, together, made it through the dark days.  We find that our faith – in the wheel of the year, the return of light to the world – has carried us through.

For herbal support this time of the year, I recommend listening to “Joyful Herbs for Darker Days” by Guido Masé.  You can also find written notes here, on his blog.


Fall Harvests for Dark Days

This last spring I planned for some fairly ambitious container gardening, which unfortunately came to naught.  The mustard thrived, and the roses survived just fine, but most of the seedlings just stopped growing and the poor tomatoes looked like they were being tortured.  It turned out the compost I’d purchased had been contaminated with some nasty persistent herbicides.  It was heartbreaking, but still, I’m lucky to have a source for stunningly vibrant dried herbs (Zack Woods Herb Farm, here in Vermont), and so I was able to order lemon balm, and tulsi, and angelica among other good things.  They’re all tucked into mason jars in alphabetical order on my shelf, ready to get me and others through the winter and remind us of greener times when things were growing.

I was also lucky enough to complete Rosemary Gladstar‘s Advanced Herbal Studies program this year.  We began in May, and that first Friday as I came over the hill into Orange, VT, it was like driving right into a cloud.  We experienced all four seasons through the program – even, during the last weekend in October, a bit of winter with snow that stayed on the ground and temperatures solidly below freezing one night.  (Since I was camping, I was distinctly aware of those temperatures!)  The last Sunday, as we each stood up to receive our certificates and congratulations from our teachers, another cloud enveloped Sage Mountain, recalling our first day there.  Of course, then the mountain and roadsides and our gardens were swelling with new growth, whereas now each frost seems to trim back what greenery is left.  It’s time to tuck in for the winter, to rest more, to hunker down and reflect on the year.  After six weekends (one each month) packed full of invaluable herbal information and inspiration, I felt (and feel) that I have a lot to reflect on, so it wasn’t so sad to leave, that afternoon, as I’d expected it would be.

As much as I’ll miss the sunshine and long afternoons stretched out in the summer heat (I could have used a few more of those, really…), I’m content to be moving into darker days of rest and reflection.  One song has it that “summer’s a lover who always leaves before it’s the right time to go,” but this year, after something of a breathless summer, I’m ready for the exhalation that winter brings.

This post is inspired by the prompt “What have you harvested this year? How are you saving your harvest so that it lasts through the winter? What other preparations are you making before the snow falls?” over at paganprompts.blogspot.com .