Connecting with the natural world in the cold months of winter
Story and Photos by KRISTIN E. LANDFIELD
The Shortest Day
“So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world…
…They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long…”
Yesterday at the grocery store, I passed some tulips in the floral section. They were fresh and tidy, and their flowers were still closed and tight, nascent. With their lavender, cotton candy hue, the tulips seemed like lost little icons of April. I had a strange thought: I wonder if they are confused by how they wound up here as token spring blooms plopped under fluorescent lights. The air outside was thick and damp with the night sky closing in on the chilly day. There were hydrangeas and statice as well—neither of these being a seasonal flower—but somehow the pastel tulips jumped out with their discordance.
Early winter has fallen. The time for tulips has long passed. As each day shortens, I miss the light more and more. Sometimes I think winter’s cold would not bother me if its days were less abrupt. Nevertheless, the earth rotates on its axis. Our northern hemisphere shifts further from the sun, and we—just as every other creature—hunker down for the cold months. Our ancestors had no shops to buy bananas or vegetables or warm loaves of hearty bread (neither did they see tulips or fluorescent lights!). For them, the arrival of winter meant meager days with bone-chilling nights, long dark stretches spent hunkered by a fire—a fire for survival rather than for romance.
But survival is more than survival of the body, and humans find ways for soul sustenance and cheer, regardless of season or circumstances. In the earliest records, historians find account of festivals and rituals around the annual “dying and rebirth” of the sun: the winter solstice. In anticipation of “starvation months,” along with bounty from the year’s harvest, communities would join to feast. Winter feasts and celebrations mingled both necessity and symbol. Berries, nuts, and cones bore essential proteins and nutrients to sustain winter starvation: necessity. In nature, berries, nuts and cones are the epitome of promise: symbol. Inside each lies the potential for renewal, where a seed patiently waits to sprout life into the world. Festivities with fire and light during the darkest nights hold the hope that abundance surely will return. Implied in the sparseness of winter is the sense that whatever lightness endures—evergreen vegetation, the thin rays from the brumal sun, and the cheer and warmth of the human spirit—all must be savored and shared. We revel in the remaining harvest at hand, made yet dearer by its paucity. We make merry.
The idea of decking the halls in the middle of winter is older than Christmas itself. As early as the 5th century before Christ, Romans gathered and garnished with greenery for their winter feast Saturnalia. After Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and westward, such customs amalgamated with Christian symbolism. Congregants continued celebrating with the natural gifts of the season, despite the traditions’ pre-Christian origins. Evergreen boughs and branches thus translated to depictions of enduring hope, incarnate as the Christ child, exalted as “the Light of the World.” Green boughs and natural adornments—the meager but treasured gifts from nature—retained their festive significance during the dark night of the soul. These scant offerings are so valued that we drape them about in merry celebration.
When I walk in a relatively barren December, hoping for some fading light before a long night, it is not tulips I need; rather it is the subtlety offered by this moment, this cycle, this place. The fact that there is simply less in the cold, sparse landscape means that each green leaf, each full berry, and each ruddy cone holds special significance. Holiday décor for me, then, is about touch, smell, tender recognition and praise of simple beauty. It confers acceptance of the perennial cycles of time. Spruce and cedar, holly and mistletoe, berries and branches become emblems for gratitude. I weave them together in offering, with the hope they bring cheer and beauty to friends and loved ones. When I cut a bough of juniper that is heavy with smokey-blue berries, then take its bristly texture in my hands and pause to breathe its scent, I find myself connected in a way that more artificial expressions of the holidays fail to offer. I am connected to the natural world like our ancestors before, who required such salves from a harsh winter. It’s a Wonderful Life and Love, Actually were not the balms of a cold cozy evening, but the candlelit green of Fraser fir could be.