Sunday, January 4, 2009

Midwinter, Sorrow, Symbols, and Hope?

If I was born for any season, it was spring. New leaves opening. The mud. The GREEN everywhere. The rain. The baby animals. Life restored. The return of light to our hemisphere. Symbols of the rekindling of hope in our tiny magnificent souls.

Likewise, winter has often been hardest for me to bear: I think the fewer daylight hours mess with my moods. And the colors and symbols of winter, particularly post-holiday winter, the months between January and March, have traditionally magnified those feelings of despair.

I mope. I want to stay in bed all the time. Good days I write psalms to myself as a reminder of who I am, what I am, what life is. Bad days I wonder if I have a purpose, if anything has a purpose. I think a lot of people probably feel at least somewhat similarly about the season. So why would our ancestors place the new year, the time of beginnings; of new dreams; and of our newer, better selves; at such a time of darkness and sorrow? Why not in the springtime so it would carry some sort of reflection of the natural world?

Informal research into pagan and Christian holiday traditions has led me to at least some understanding. Originally the Romans placed the new year on the first of March (my proposed date). Later, the assorted Christian calendars would often place the beginning of the year on the celebration of Jesus Christ's birth, December 25th. Others placed it on the feast commemorating his circumcision, January 1st. Gradually all of the Christian/European cultures came to adopt the January 1st date.

If we look into the traditions behind Christmas, we see that many or most of them have history in the pagan rituals surrounding of the feast of midwinter, winter solstice, or Saturnalia. The day with fewest hours of sunlight also marks the beginning of the return of the sun. The mythic story parallels the Christian narrative as well: a half god/half human sun deity is born on this day. Or more precisely, I think as the tradition goes, the sun dies, remains dead for three days, and then is reborn, and his growth parallels the return of daylight to the hemisphere.

Whichever story you believe, Christian or pagan (or something else), I think there is some important symbolism in the celebration of a new year at this point in the calendar. Death, darkness, despair - these all have their unfortunate role in human existence. And I have observed from the ashes of sorrow comes some of the the greatest growth and personal triumph. Even the act of enduring the winter, to me, is a triumph. It is a tribute to the nobility of the human spirit.

We sang this song today at church which uses words from Tennyson's poem*.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
To Christians, Christ seems to represent the better, kinder selves we humans strive to become, for all that we are, for all that we wish to be. I do not believe that most change is linear. New Year's represents the cyclical process of death and rebirth leading to the expansion of our souls. And with this recently-acquired, strange, sad little peace, I find the seasonal location of New Year's Day to be, for the first time, symbolically appropriate.

*(There are more stanzas to the poem, but I think only three are included in the hymn.)

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