Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Here comes the Sun!

Strasbourg's rose window, oriented to catch light from the  sunrise
Whatever your mid-winter holiday tradition, it's time for celebration. Wednesday, December 21st, at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, the Winter Solstice arrives. Longer daylight hours, shorter nights, and the returning warmth of sunlight . . . Maybe that doesn't mean too much to us who live in sunny southern California, but I've had enough personal experience to appreciate just how much the sun means to me.

When I was younger, I spent one long, cold winter in Ithaca, New York with a newborn and a preschooler. The children's father would leave for the local bus at 8:30 in the morning--and some winter days, the sky was still dark. He would arrive home from work about 4 in the afternoon--and the sky was dark once again. As a rule, Ithaca ties Seattle for the number of sunless days every year, but that year Ithaca won the title. The weather was cold. The snow was deep. One January afternoon, there was a blizzard that blew out the pilot light on the furnace and we had to spend the night at a local motel to keep warm. The winter's dark and cold seemed (to me, anyway) endless. Taking the babies outside was an involved process of dressing and then undressing, punctuated by starting the car and its heater before the kids were loaded in the vehicle.

One of those winters was enough for me. I admired the fortitude, patience, and forbearance of my friends in Ithaca (many of whom grew up in harsh climates), but I was a sunshine girl. As soon as we had the opportunity to return to sunnier, more temperate climes, we left Ithaca.

Busking angel mime at Cologne's Dom
This past month, Bob and I spent almost three weeks in northern Europe. Although there was no snow (global warming is a reality), it was cold: not a mere uncomfortable cold, but a bone-chilling and numbing damp cold. For almost three weeks, the weather varied between types of rain and extreme winds. The buskers outside of Cologne's cathedral huddled against the howling winds. Umbrellas turned inside out. Mud puddles and rain made cobblestones slippery. In Brussels, the morning sky didn't lighten until about 8:15; the sky was dark again by 4 in the afternoon. Compared to Los Angeles county, we really were in upper latitudes. And life went on. I realized that this weather, which I thought was so miserable, was part of daily winter life in this part of the world. Locals rode bicycles in the rain and fashionable women wearing impossible high-heeled boots deftly sidestepped puddles.

The cold and dark winter climate caused me to appreciate just how important light can be. Every city, every little town, even tiny villages had beautiful evening light displays. Brussels' cathedral square featured a stunning sound and light show, beginning at 4 every evening. Colored lights in the shape of snowflakes drifted over the cathedral's facade, illuminating the statutes of saints. Families came to enjoy the show. Teenagers met up with friends. There was a respite from the cold and wind, as we all came together to enjoy warmth and light. The experience was that of a party, a mutual acknowledgement that this time of year was cause for celebration. We visited about twenty local Weinachtsmarkt, or Christmas markets, each one magical with lights, woolen goods, hot food stalls, sparkling ornaments, and, what else? candles of all sizes, glowing with flame against the dark night.

The Christmas Market draws crowds every evening
Savoring warmth and sunlight is part of enjoying life. As living beings, we delight in basking in the warmth of sunlight. During our practice the surya nasmaskar, or sun salutations, are an homage to the sun's warmth and healing power. When in savasana, or final relaxation, we are often cued to think of lying under the sunshine on top of a sandy beach. In a temperate climate, we can lose sight of the importance of sunshine, but it is essential to life itself.

At a service in Strasbourg's cathedral, young Boy and Girl Guides assembled with candle lanterns that were unlit. They and their families gathered at the main altar and had a short service that was, particularly meaningful whatever your faith tradition. A flame had been brought from Bethlehem, traveling to northeastern France. Each child's lantern was lit with that flame. At the conclusion of the service, the children were told to take their own flame into the dark and cold world, to bring light and warm to others. At nine in the morning, as the families left the cold, dark, stone cathedral on a damp and windy Sunday morning, the bright lanterns shone brilliantly.

Brussell's Cathedral's sound and light show is dramatic
In the Christian tradition, the Christ's incarnation is celebrated on December 25th. There is little historical reason for the date of Christmas, but there is a very human reason for the date: it makes sense to celebrate the coming of the Son at the time we celebrate the winter solstice. Many other faith traditions make light and warmth part of this time of year as well. The menorah of Hanukkah adds a flame every day for a full week and a day until the entire candelabrum is ablaze. Diwali, celebrates the Hindu new year, albeit a few weeks earlier (any later, it's monsoon season, and difficult to keep the fire lit). During Diwali, a  row of lamps are lit in every house, to signal the triumph of good over evil. As we do in the United States, Diwali is a time for celebration, new clothes, and special treats. For Persians, the winter solstice is the occasion for Yalda, "the turning point," that celebrates the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. In the Chinese tradition, Dongzhi, or "extreme of winter," is celebrated with a festival on the 22nd of December. The longer daylight hours marked by that date introduce  positive solar energy. Families reunite and eat traditional foods such as glutinous rice balls or dumplings; ancestors are remembered. For many Chinese, Dongzhi rather than the lunar new year, is the beginning of the year.

Diwali light displays are spectacular
For cultures in the northern hemisphere, there is clear evidence that the winter solstice's significance is more than astronomical. The influence of light, the presence of warmth, the gathering of friends and family, the celebration of life--all of these accumulate meaning. In our yoga practice, we honor and acknowledge the light and warmth that is part of our life together. Like those lantern-carrying children in Strasbourg, let us share our life, our light, and our warmth through this season and in the year to come.


Bring the light of this season into your world

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