December 21st is what we officially refer to as the Winter Solstice. This day has the ignominious distinction of being the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere). Of course while every day is essentially the same length (24 hours the last time I checked) the 21st has the fewest number of daylight hours. This day is synonymous with coldness, darkness, dormancy but it is also associated with celebrations of renewal, hope, generosity and introspection. It is the beginning of the return of the sun.
Historically the winter solstice has been celebrated in many cultures over thousands of years. In Ancient Rome it was called Saturnalia and commenced on December 17th and lasted for 7 days. In Scandinavia it was called the Feast of Juul (this is where our Yule Log tradition comes from). Poland has a festival called Gody that centers on forgiveness and sharing. Pakistan celebrates Chaomos which focuses on purification. There are many examples of cultures that celebrate the winter solstice as a time of rebirth and renewed light in the world and it is no coincidence that the Roman Catholic Church decided to designate December 25th as the birth of the “true light of the world”. (Spoiler alert, it is pretty much agreed upon that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th but rather sometime in the fall, perhaps the month of November).
Back when life was simple and humanity was rooted to nature it was recognized that the worst was over after December 21st, at least in terms of light. Indeed, each day hence forward will be around 3 minutes longer and it is this predictability and rhythm that can bring us peace and hope. Yes, it will still be dark when we wake up and probably dark when we come home from work for quite a while, but ever so slowly it will improve. Our gardens will transcend from total dormancy to gradual awakening starting with winter bloomers like Witch Hazel, Lionel Fortesque Mahonia, Winter Daphne, Sarcococca and Dawn Viburnum. Bulbs will emerge from the cold damp ground and burst into full bloom as early as next month (my daffodils are already up). Perennials like primroses and hellebores are already blooming as are pansies (seems like they never stop blooming). My Cornelian Cherry typically blooms all of January and February.
So while December 21st is technically the first day of winter it is also the end of shorter days and that alone is cause for celebration. In this crazy world where extreme commercialism bombards us daily and the majority of us find ourselves completely disconnected from the rhythms of nature, it is worth our time to stop and contemplate our place on this planet. Contrary to the holiday hustle, winter is a quiet season when we should spend time reflecting on our relationships to nature, our community, our family and the world as a whole. And what better place to contemplate than in our gardens.
Regardless of our religious persuasion, winter can be an excellent time to deepen our spiritual understanding of life and how interconnected we all are on this round mass we call Earth. Bundle up, go outside and commune with nature. Tune into the rhythms and find your center where the physical reality of our gardens meets the spiritual awareness of our souls. That meeting place is where one can truly see the light of creation.