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.