Monday, January 1, 2018

Light, darkness, and shadows

I don't think it was a coincidence that Bill and I took our first "sparkle tour" (his lovely phrase) on the winter solstice. Bill always drives; his car has heated seats.  It's my task to store in my head the map of neighbourhoods and streets where people go all out.  (Elliott Drive off Broadway east of Winnipeg is a small crescent in which nearly everyone decorates to the max.)  Driving Regina's streets in the dark and admiring the way people have decorated for Christmas while we have unusually rich conversations has been an annual ritual for us for some time.  Perhaps because 2017 was so dark in so many ways and because the weather gave us several reprieves that let us get organized to put up lights, people seemed particularly keen this year to drape lights on trees, to outline roof line, to adorn walkways with red candy canes or to prop sprays of lights in a hibernating garden.  As well, by the solstice, most people have their Christmas trees up--trees they have placed in their front windows, despite the amount of furniture moving required.

Why do we do this?  The Christian Christmas is certainly a season of light, marked as it is in the telling by the light of a brilliant start and the sparkling songs of angels of light.  But for many of us, Christmas is a time when families gather for wonderful meals and an opportunity for generosity we may not usually feel for our second cousin or for a child who has learned the habit of begging for every new toy.  I think this practice is really much older and is founded in a whole host of anxieties we feel about the shortening days.  My old Chaucer professor, Leo MacNamara, once confessed that every year toward the winter solstice he experienced an irrational sense that the days would just continue to get shorter and shorter until the sun was absent altogether.  Many of us who cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD don't express what we are feeling quite so dramatically, but we struggle nevertheless.  Something happens to my sense of self:  I don't worry about the sun disappearing altogether but about friends abandoning me one by one.

So when we move the furniture so the sparkling Christmas tree is in the window, we are sharing light, celebrating light.  Our homes speak to the streets through the gardens we put in, through the pots and boxes we fill with flowers.  Particularly on the prairies, where summers are relatively short, we celebrate colour--the antithesis of the white winter.  But there's something more intimate about putting a Christmas tree in the window: for a brief moment people are invited into the light at the centre of our living rooms.  Home owners who never leave their curtains open after dusk have suddenly thrown caution to the winds and let us see their Charlie Brown tree, their artificial tree, the tinsel and white tree they've had for years, the seven-footer Fraser Fir that they wrestled in the doorway.  There are little stories lit up in all those living room windows.

But one of the things I love about this time of year is that the low light coming from the south illuminates parts of my house that light never glimpses and that it comes with shadows that are complicated enough for a brief woolgathering study of them.  I have lilacs in the south facing front garden of my house, so that even if light came through my southern windows in the summer, the leafy lilacs would blot out a most of it.  But now their branches are bare, and the low sunlight casts their tangle into my dining room.

This has been a dark year:  I don't even want to elaborate on that sentence.  Each of you can do that his or her own way.  But there's a difference between darkness and shadows.  Shadows only exist where there is also light.


  1. That winter light that sneaks into our homes and makes those usually inaccessible nooks so very welcoming. For several weeks bracketing the solstice, the sunshine actually reaches all the way across my kitchen (about 26 feet) to shine on the front of the kitchen cupboards. It strikes the kitchen table as it goes by. And turns the birch into molten honey. You will find me there, most days, about 2 pm. Set your clock by it. :)

  2. A lovely image, Carla. I love the way its shafts light the room where I wrote and quilt with instant cheer!