The day the sun stands still

Wiggling my toes under the warm duvet, listening to rain, I really don’t want to get out of bed. It’s a struggle to get up on these days when it is pitch dark outside. For the last few weeks I have been anticipating the winter solstice with growing impatience, watching the clock to check the time the sun dips below the horizon. I like to know so I can see the difference when the days begin to lengthen.

I look forward to this move towards the New Year, but in other ways, the turn of the year has begun to be a time a dread for me. There was a time that I could look back and tick off the achievements of the year – exams passed, papers published, research completed, a new job, a new addition to the family. And these successes paved the way for anticipation of further exciting things to come. But now, if I am honest, I am scared by each new year as it approaches, frightened of what it might bring. Over the past few years, events have shaken my foundations making me so aware of how fragile life is, how precariously balanced I am on the edge, how easy it is to fall. One phone call, one health scare in the family, one unexpected conversation could implode my world. And rather than looking back on my achievements, I am looking back at years where my only success has been hanging on by my nails, surviving. Another year has passed me by, another year carved from my life with nothing to show for it other than making it from one end to the other. The best I can say about myself is that I have managed to drag my family through another twelve months. Each year my children grow up a little, each year I feel a little bit more empty.

In the woods, it is different. Years do not begin and end; nature’s heart beats to a never ending rhythm, a cyclical turning of the seasons. The trees adapt to light and temperature, not a man made calendar. They don’t stop to look back, they are forever striding forwards, living in reaction to the moment. And the wood is poised waiting for the next change; very soon the days will begin to lengthen and the trees will notice.

I find it easier to adopt the trees strategy. The winter solstice is something that I can look forward to without trepidation. I can celebrate as the evenings begin to draw out. And I won’t be alone. The winter solstice was once a widespread celebration, a tradition honoured to give thanks for the coming of the lighter days. The word solstice means ‘sun stands still’; the apparent movement of the sun in the sky stops it’s southward progression – the sun rises for a few days in almost the same place on the horizon, before beginning its move back northwards. In the dark days of the winter, I fix my eyes on the date of the winter solstice. How much more must it have meant to people with no central heating, no electric light, a complete reliance for food on local crops and foraging.

The winter solstice was, and still is, a time of great symbolism. In old Europe, this time of year became known as Yule from the Norse Jul meaning wheel. Wreaths were made from branches of evergreen representing the wheel of the year and candles were lit. Huge logs were hauled into fireplaces both inside and out and burned to celebrate the return of the sun, a tradition originating in Norway. Pine trees have been brought inside at the solstice since Roman times as a sign of life in the depth of winter and houses were decked with the colours of Yule – red, green and gold, the colour of the sun. In 2018, the winter solstice is on the 21st December, the actual moment of solstice around 10:23 PM in the UK. This start of the solar year is a New Year I can celebrate. In the coming weeks I will eagerly check the clock and shout to children ‘the sun was down this time yesterday’. I will look forward to the day we can walk to Brownies without a torch, the day the sun is up before our walk to school. I will repeatedly check my new diary’s data pages (pretty much unused for the rest of the year), looking to see how much longer the days are compared to last week.

So I will try not to get caught up with the Gregorian calendar. I will look forward to the turning of the solar year and hoist my Yule log onto the fire. I will wait and watch as the days lengthen, as the wood reacts to the light. I will feel the movement of nature’s wheel and will look to the trees in the knowledge that whatever the future holds, in the wood spring will come.

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