Harking Back to Nature

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tonight at precisely 7:22, while you are washing dishes, doing your holiday shopping or reading this newspaper, the sun will stand still. At that point in Earth's yearly orbit around the sun, the Northern Hemisphere will have tilted away from the sun as far as it's going to go. The sun's zenith (the high point of its arc) today is the lowest of the year. Six months later it will reach the highest. Today, the winter solstice, marks the year's shortest day and longest night.

The sun doesn't literally stop, but, to highly observant Neolithic man, it seemed to, partly because the increments by which the days shorten and then lengthen at this time are so small. The sun, on which all life depends, withholds its power in winter and seems to hesitate before deciding to return and gradually wake up the Earth again. To early man, it was a solemn, frightening moment.

Most modern religious occasions correspond to agricultural festivals that predate them, and our present customs still reflect that connection. In spring, the observance of Easter has roots in fertility celebrations universally practiced at that time of year. Some people have linked its name to Eostre, a Saxon fertility goddess, and images of fecundity still abound. Eggs are discovered in green grass. They are brought by a rabbit -- an animal that can conceive even while bearing a litter.

In the Christmas season, we still deck the halls with evergreen branches just as the ancient Romans did during the late December feast of Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, a god of agriculture. The tradition passed to Europe, where holiday activities still feature conifers, holly and mistletoe, plants that wear their green even in winter's deathlike grip. Cultures around the world light fires and candles at this time to propitiate the forces of darkness and banish the gloom left by the departing sun. Removed as we might sometimes be from both nature and religion in modern times, some essential feelings are the same as they ever were. I wonder if the oft-mentioned "Christmas blues" is a symptom not of the holidays and their attendant frenzy, but a primal reaction to the year's darkest time, which shopping for gifts fails to dispel. I've noticed that holiday cheer with links to a more Earth-centered past does more to lift our mood.

The diversity of our religions is seen as a problem during holidays, hence nondenominational -- and comical -- phrases such as "the Spring Bunny" and "spring eggs" that are sometimes proposed. Non-Christian homes sometimes wrestle with the dilemma of whether to have a Christmas tree. But the scent of a balsam fir, released into a warm room, is something we all experience in the same way. Lighted candles, whether for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, must in some way reassure us that the sun is about to get a bit stronger each day.

I once lived in a city apartment whose only windows looked out on a narrow airshaft. One October day I noticed that the Jewish residents of the building had built a little booth at the bottom of the shaft, decked it with vegetation and were periodically gathering within it. It was a moving sight. Years later I learned that they were celebrating Sukkot, a harvest festival that recollects a time when the Jews wandered in the desert and lived in small shelters, cut off from a more settled farming life. A friend, Rabbi Everett Gendler, invited my husband and me to participate in the Sukkot service at his synagogue in Andover, Mass. Our contribution to the event was to help build a large cold frame next to the south side of the synagogue and plant it with cold-weather salad crops. It was a ritual that any gardener could understand. Whatever our beliefs about deity and dogma, we are all in the same pew when it comes to the sun, the moon, the climate and whether the crops will grow.

It's easy to dismiss Christmas trees, maypoles, jack-o'-lanterns and bunnies as, at worst, commercial trappings of the season or, at best, funny old customs that have somehow stuck. But nothing sticks without glue, and the glue in this case is our dependence on the natural world, whether or not we admit it.

If your neighborhood's regulations allow it, this would be a good night for a bonfire. While you're outdoors, holding mugs of hot apple cider, pour some on a tree -- preferably an apple tree -- in the tradition of wassail to ensure good growth in spring. Light a big yule log if you have a fireplace, and save a piece of it for the yule fire next year to help keep the circle of life going. Perfume the fire with rosemary, sage and bay from potted herbs you've brought inside for the winter. Kiss under the mistletoe, then pick a spinach, mache and arugula salad from your cold frame as a tribute to the returning light.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company