It’s hard to keep track of how many civilizations have claimed the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year – as a lynchpin of their religious ceremonies. It is a wonderful irony of human existence that the longest night – the very epitome of darkness – is almost universally recognized as an annual symbol of rebirth.
It seems to be built into us, on some deep level, to view our darkest hour as the herald of a coming dawn. I suspect that this ingrained response, a continual search within the darkness for the harbingers of hope, has contributed mightily to the survival of our species.
In some sense this quality is echoed in the sort of feeling I see around me in our country today. On the one hand, industries are failing, unemployment is on the rise, belts tighten nervously throughout the land, while eyes glaze over in dull disbelief at a seemingly endless war. There is a feeling that we have reached some sort of nadir.
And yet these feelings go hand in hand with a wave of excitement in many parts of the country about the incoming Obama administration. There is work to be done here, an uplifting to be had after years of deep systemic failure at the top. Every time our president-elect makes another sensible cabinet appointment, each time he signals a willingness to reach across the partisan aisle come January 20 (something Bill Clinton famously neglected to do in 1992-94) you can sense a nation gaining confidence that there is serious intent here, a deep commitment to prudently steer our great ship of state out of the dangerous waters of its current crisis. It won’t be easy.
When thinking about such things, it may be useful to remember that the holiday our nation celebrates today is an historical amalgam of opposites. The celebration of a prophet of peace – a renegade rabbi from Nazareth – became merged with the Viking Yul celebration of Thor – the hammer wielding god of thunder himself. The cute song we now sing to the twelve days of Christmas had its roots in the time it took – up to twelve days – until the last angry fires of the mighty Yule log, symbol of the war god, had burnt out.
Our lives are built of opposites, as surely as dawn rises from the darkness of night. The brutal priorities of the Bush administration with its hammer of war, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, illicit NSA wiretaps of you and me, body bags of American teenagers returning home to weeping mothers in enforced secrecy, the massive sell-off of the wealth of American children not yet born, these all laid the groundwork for what is to be.
A centrist government is coming in, and has already begun assembling itself into shape as an agent of economic growth, and of a more inclusive and less frenzied kind of capitalism. Each individual citizen, each family, every child, no matter their background, is a potential agent for growth and prosperity. It’s a simple concept – one we’ve had in this country for many years, yet recently somehow lost amid the crashing and splintering din of Thor’s hammer.
It seems that the Winter solstice has passed, and Spring is coming. I, for one, am looking forward to it.