A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark. (She sells these on Etsy at  JailerCostumeShop).

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

Winter Solstice

First snow tree at night

Some people believe that the winter solstice − rather than All Hallow’s Eve − is the time when the veil is thinnest between the worlds of the living and the spirits. The mystic in me wants to embrace this idea, but my inner skeptic wonders if there is a spirit world at all. One thing I am certain of: there is more in nature we don’t understand than we do. And that’s okay, as it should be. There is something about the winter solstice, about the interplay between light and darkness, that makes me want to believe in a world of shadow and mystery.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac calls the December full moon the “Cold Moon” or “Long Nights Moon,” according to Native American tradition. I’ve also heard it called the “Moon of the Popping Trees,” because in some places it can get so cold that the sap freezes in trees, expanding and breaking the bark in the middle of the night with a loud crack. In that kind of weather, a person could step outside to relieve themselves, be enchanted by the prismatic beauty of moonlight on snow crystals, and freeze to death in the span of ten minutes. It could take even fewer minutes in a northern ice-scape without trees at all. Best be careful, little human being.

I had the fortune to spend this past summer solstice on the Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research vessel for Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. For years, I’d longed to experience the Bering Sea. It is more formidable than I ever imagined. And more beautiful. Its slate gray waters − even in summer − could have claimed my life in the span of five minutes if I fell overboard. No warning signs are necessary on that boat’s pitching rail.

To some, the whole point of the winter solstice is the rebirth of the sun, the relief that it won’t keep fading away, that light and warmth will come back to us. That’s vital, but only half the story. I believe my Irish ancestors – the ones who called themselves Druids and who named the winter solstice Alban Arthuan – might agree with me. It’s not only about the return of the light, it’s also about embracing the darkness, beyond the recognition that there are things out there that can hurt us, freeze us, kill us. Humans are not in control. We never have been. It’s good to be reminded on this shortest day of the year. Often there is strength, even survival, in concealment.

Civilizations that live near the Earth’s poles seem to understand the winter solstice best. The myths of Iceland are filled with creatures like Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. Icelanders are direct descendants of Vikings, who must have loved cats. Recent archeological research hints that they may have been the ones to bring house cats to Europe. But the Yule Cat is not a pet. It’s a creature of the darkness, eating people who have been too lazy to wear out their working clothes during the course of the previous year. I understand that Icelanders still typically give gifts of clothing for Christmas to ward off Jólakötturinn. You don’t have to literally believe in the Yule Cat to embrace a tradition like this, to be watchful, especially in the frigid night of winter.

We need to take care, but we don’t need to fear. Darkness is beautiful, like the silvered waves of the arctic seas. Somewhere in the long night is also a warm hug, a fire, a feast, someone we love. And there is no better time to tell a good story, the sort of intricate tale that emerges from the blackness and takes hold. This solstice, turn toward the darkness as well as the light. Conceal yourself in it. But don’t forget to be vigilant. Always be watchful.