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The inspiration of dark evenings

Winter SolsticeRobert Frost

How the days and months seem to have melted away — melted away from dawns to darkest evenings that arrive earlier each day.

We are now approaching "the darkest evening of the year," as one of our favorite American poets, Robert Frost, mentioned at the end of the second stanza of perhaps his most famous poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

The winter solstice will arrive on Dec. 21 this year and is the time of the shortest day and longest, and darkest, evening of the year, which marks the beginning of winter. The sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, and its noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the solstice. It sometimes seems as if the sun is "stopping" for a rest in the sky — the origin of the word "solstice." Gradually, the days begin growing longer and the nights shorter as spring begins to arrive and we finally come to the summer solstice in June.

As a child, I remember great anticipation and delight in contemplating the lighting of the Yule log and the decorating of our Christmas tree, which was originally a Pagan custom and always celebrated at our home on the evening of the winter solstice. Many northern cultures and families have their own way of celebrating the shortest day and longest night of the year. It is a celebration and yet, lurking there, the realization that it is the beginning of the arrival of the next season.

How very modern this thought is — always moving on to something new and different.

In November, it was such pleasure to contemplate the gradual early arrival of darkness and the accompanying warmth and coziness of being at home with early supper and early to bed. And what would I read on these lovely, long nights of comforting darkness? It would be fascinating to read about the ways our early ancestors tried to banish the dark and bring light to their lives, light brought to them by their campfires, giving them warmth and torches to keep away the predators as they sat close together about their fires when gathering together for protection.

How many images we carry in our memories of books from childhood describing early lives of chasing down animals to roast over their blazing bonfires — and how fortunate we are that we don't even have to chase down a bowl of rice for our own supper.

I always wonder if early man had time to gaze into the fire and gain a brief moment of joy and peace and relief from his never-ending hunt for food and warm clothing for his very brief survival. How our early ancestors must have been frightened to see their fires sputter and die out in their primitive nights.

Now as we approach the time of the winter solstice, I hope that there will be time to slow down and give thanks for this amazing world in which we live and perhaps even spend some time with friends, not discussing what a terrible state the world is in but what each of us might do to improve, in a very small way, our lives and the lives of others.

The darkest evenings of the year give us time to slow down, stop chasing the latest sales and substitute thanks for what there is right now. We could use this time of year as a learning experience for our children as we gather together to decorate our homes with greens and our hearts with warmth.

Perhaps practicing kindness would be a good place to begin as we feel the joy of giving ourselves to others. It is so easy.

Like melting.

Edith Maynard, a former longtime resident of Baltimore, lives in Lake Barrington, Ill. Her email is edith.maynard@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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