At a place not far from where I lived in my early twenties, people are gathering now: lucky people. They’ve won the annual lottery, into which neither money nor position can buy a place. You either get in or you don’t: 20 people a day, for about four mornings, once a year.
These people will see the light, literally, at the Newgrange Mound.
No one knows exactly how old this structure in the cold east country of Ireland is: Celtic or proto-Celtic, it predates Stonehenge by a good thousand years. Those who built it clearly knew a few things about astronomy and seasonal change.
The builders knew precisely when the sun would rise on the shortest day of the year. They crafted a passage that led to the deepest heart of the structure. That passage and the roofbox above it let in only the first beams of light, only on the winter solstice. Sunlight shines in for a few minutes, then is gone.
Once a year.
The season that everyone calls “the Holidays” is a tough time for many. A couple of decades ago, I joined their number. I never understood the heft of that membership until I passed the threshold. As you know if you too are a member, there is no crossing back over.
In this time of parties, gifts, sales, the scent of sweet-and-piney-whatever hanging heavy and still in the crisp air, doesn’t it all just seem to go on a bit longer each year? Isn’t it tiring, rolling in the crowd, when you can’t feel what they feel?
And yet. We long to join back in. We long to feel it again, what we felt when we were small: wonder.
The British Isles in winter are the coldest place I have ever been: cold and wet. The buildings ache with age, and often there’s nowhere to go to escape the damp. The sun really does rise at nine a.m., and it’s dark again – if you’re in, say, Scotland, in early January – before 3 in the afternoon. Sources of radiant heat and light are in short supply. Fortunately, the people there are the kindest I’ve met.
These people know what it means to wait for brighter days. I believe they’ve known for centuries. I watched them hibernate, then edge back to the sun when it returned, in April and May. They were white and frail as they always are by then, but the sun did come back. They know this, in some honest place inside. It always returns.
Those shafts of light, as they touch the place deep inside the Newgrange Mound: those are hope. They are the beginning of the end of darkness. This is the sign: the longest night of the year has passed. Things will get better now. Our belief in things getting better actually makes the better days begin.
On this longest night of the year, I send out wishes:
To all those starting over (like Don … hell, like everyone on Mad Men)
To all those living with loss (like Don, Pete, Betty, and Sally)
To all those dealing with more difficulty than they expected (like Joan)
To all who have had to change their plans (like Joan, Don, Roger, Sal, and Trudy)
To all who are separated from loved ones (like Don, Sally, and Bobby)
To all who struggle to make ends meet (like Joan, like Carla)
To all who wait and work, daily, for those better days. Like all of us.
The longest night will pass. It always does. In the meantime, I thank everyone here at the Basket – for the hearth of your friendship, in good times and bad.
See you in the morning.