Monday, December 20, 2010

To Drive the Cold Winter Away

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man's friend,
That doth but the best that he may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
To drive the cold winter away.

Here on the US east coast, the longest, darkest night in nearly four hundred years has begun.

Thankfully, this isn't a metaphor--it's science.

Tonight in the northern hemisphere is the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice; and it's the first time in hundreds of years that the longest night of the year has had a lunar eclipse.

Actually, I don't know how this is the darkest night--if the moon is in total eclipse, it's not like it's a new moon, which we can't really see; even if it's dark red, it's still a light.
The court in all state now opens her gate
And gives a free welcome to most;
The city likewise, tho' somewhat precise,
Doth willingly part with her roast:
But yet by report from city and court
The country will e'er gain the day;
More liquor is spent and with better content
To drive the cold winter away.
But that's not really why I'm posting. For what the moon is doing--passing through the shadow of the earth, from light into darkness and again into light--is much like the Winter Solstice itself, when we reach the longest night, when the strength of the sun (metaphorically) is at it's lowest point, and ancient people waited out the night to see the sun rise again, knowing that after this, the sun would gradually strengthen again, that the long, dark nights would eventually give way to spring, to summer, to growth. And regardless of whether we ever had Christmas, we would still have had the solstice, we would still have had that long, dark time of year, when we light lights through the night.
Thus none will allow of solitude now
But merrily greets the time,
To make it appear of all the whole year
That this is accounted the prime:
December is seen apparel's in green,
And January fresh as May
Comes dancing along with a cup and a song
To drive the cold winter away.
Last Friday, my husband and I threw a party, because that's what you do this time of year. I don't mean that dismissively--I am being entirely sincere. These are the longest nights; it's cold, it's miserable, and there's little to do outside but rush from one place to the other. We gather together, eating and drinking, talking and remembering, because this is when things are slow. We need a break--like the sun, we're worn down, and waiting for renewal.
To mask and to mum kind neighbours will come
With wassails of nut-brown ale,
To drink and carouse to all in the house
As merry as bucks in the dale;
Where cake, bread, and cheese is brought for your fees
To make you the longer stay;
At the fire to warm 'twill do you no harm,
To drive the cold winter away.
And from now until after the New Year, the sun stands still--for that's what "solstice" means in Latin--and so do we. And on this, the longest night, when even the moon, for the first time in hundreds of years, goes from full brightness to an eclipse, it's good to remember, beyond the politics of Christmas, of buying gifts and worrying about the bills to come, of whose family to visit (or whether to avoid families altogether), it's good to remember that while we live, each night will come to an end, just as much as each day. Sometimes it takes longer to see the sun again, but it's coming. It will come. And the night will, eventually, end.
When white-bearded frost hath threatened his worse,
And fallen from branch and briar,
Then time away calls from husbandry halls
And from the good countryman's fire,
Together to go, to plough and to sow
To get us both food and array,
And thus will content the time we have spend
To drive the cold winter away.

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