The shortest day of the year is drawing to a close as I write this. Yule is a time of darkness as much as it is a celebration of returning light. A time to draw in, to germinate. And, I’m beginning to realize, a time when darkness is not to be defeated but embraced.
Have We Misunderstood The Ancestors?
One of the absolute highlights of my pilgrimage to Ireland in 2018 was my visit to Newgrange. If you’re not familiar, Newgrange is a 5,000 year old passage tomb in Co. Meath on the bend of the Boyne river. It’s famous for it’s solar alignment on Winter Solstice sunrise, when a beam of light shines through a “roofbox” over the entrance, illuminating the recesses inside for just under 20 minutes.
This awe-inspiring event is often portrayed as a victory of light over darkness. That ray of light shining on the ashes of the dead was proof the dark days would end and warmth and light would return to the earth.
But what if that’s not exactly correct?
It’s always been fascinating to me that the “rebirth of light” comes before the coldest, most brutal days of Winter. Marks, in fact, the beginning of the winter season. And yet, we celebrate as if those days are already behind us. I’m starting to think that perhaps our Ancestors saw it a bit differently.
Darkness Doesn’t Have To Be Frightful
The other most profound part of my trip to Ireland was visiting Oweynagat, the “Cave of Cats” in Co. Roscommon. This underground cavern is known as “Ireland’s Hellmouth” or entrance to the Otherworld, and also the “fit abode” of the Goddess Mórrígan.
Led by my friend and teacher Lora O’Brien of the Irish Pagan School, I crawled through the small opening in the middle of a field, scooted down the muddy passageway, and found myself inside the small underground cavern. After a few minutes getting a good look at the place, Lora insisted we turn our lights off.
Absolutely no light from outside penetrates this chamber. The darkness I had been so anxious about settled around me like a thick blanket. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since. It was almost a physical entity of it’s own.
And yet, it was not scary at all. It felt strangely comforting, secure even. Sitting on a rock 20 feet below ground with my eyes open wide and thick, impenetrable blackness covering me felt like the safest thing in the world.
Then, She began to speak. Through Lora, An Mórrígan spoke of this darkness. This, She said, is the place where nothing grows but from which everything is born. Where creativity is born. She told me I could come back to this place, to this darkness, whenever I wanted. And I have never felt so accepted, encouraged and empowered.
Darkness As Healer
All around the world, a myriad of cultures embrace the darkness of this time of year. From the Hygge of Denmark, mysigt in Sweden, friluftsliv in Norway, and gemütlichkeit in Germany to African and Native American tribes who use the darkness as a time for visionary and spirit work, the dark days are a time of coziness, calm and spiritual development.
Darkness is also key to one of Ireland’s druidic wisdom traditions, Imbas forosnai. The poets would sit in a completely darkened room for several days, with guards to make sure they were undisturbed while they “slept” (likely in deep trance) with “palms over their cheeks” – possibly a reference to covering their heads to further block out any sensory input.
For our agrarian ancestors, winter would have been the only time of year when there was no work to do in the fields. With the ground potentially frozen and temperatures too low to be very active outside, this would have been a time of rest, recuperation and healing. Before the advent of electricity, people were much more comfortable and used to being in the dark. It makes perfect sense that as long as there was enough food put up to last through the winter, these days of calm and drawing inward were something to look forward to rather than something to fight against.
Making The Most Of This Time Of Darkness
So the Winter Solstice, rather than being a victory of light over darkness, marks the high point of the dark days. The time when we have the greatest opportunity to go inward, heal and recuperate. How can we do that? By actually spending more time with less light.
Here are some ideas:
- Cut back on the artificial light. Especially any “blue” light like that of a tv or computer screen. But even regular indoor lighting can interfere with our natural circadian rhythms. Consider turning screens off earlier and using fewer lamps. Bonus points: use candles or oil lamps at least a few hours a night or a 1-2 days a week.
- Sit in the dark. Whether you meditate or just sit and observe the shadows, sitting in the dark can be incredibly healing. Try to sit for just a bit longer than you feel comfortable. Caveat: for those with PTSD sitting with our thoughts can spark intrusive spirals. If this happens, be kind to yourself. Don’t overdo it. But do realize that you are safe now, and sometimes sitting with these thoughts in safety can begin to take away their power.
- Go outside. One of the most profound ways of embracing the darkness is to do it in nature. If you can sit still outside in the dark, you’ll be amazed at what can happen. Connection with spirits of place. Animals that approach. Ancestors that bring messages. It can be absolutely spectacular. Pro tip: It’s cold out. Find a brick or large rock and heat it in the oven before you set out. Wrap it in a towel, and hold or sit on it outside – it can keep you warm for an hour or more without the light of a fire.
- Above all, be still. This time of year has become known for busyness and chaos. Don’t participate. Accept that we are not meant to be productive all the time, and the stillness of winter is supposed to apply to humans, too. You don’t have to be doing something all the time. It’s not just ok, but healthy and necessary to do less or even nothing this time of year. Running yourself ragged to create a “happy holiday” is the exact opposite of what this time is supposed to be about. Give yourself permission to not do a damn thing as often as possible.
Everything Begins In Darkness
The place where nothing grows, but from which everything is born.
Many indigenous cultures saw time a bit differently than we do today. Instead of midnight or even dawn, the new day began at sundown. The new year began at Samhain or at the end of harvests. Because everything is born in the dark.
Collectively, we’ve endured a lot of trauma the past few years. And many of us had endured a lot more long before that. There’s never been a better time to take advantage of the stillness and healing the long nights of winter have to offer.
Let’s do what our ancestors did. Let’s slow down, get quiet and still. Let’s embrace the darkness this winter season. Gods know this world can use all the healing it can get.