On the night of the Long Dark, the winter solstice, the ancient people built bonfires on the tops of mountains, beat drums, sounded cymbals and recited incantations to the sun to stay its flight.
Going back as far as anyone remembers, the days soon begin to lengthen, and the sun, in the light of the competition from bonfires and candles, reasserts itself and shines with renewed vigor.
Yesterday (though some argue for Dec. 21) was the solstice, the day winter officially begins. In Mexico it's the opening of the annual radish sculptors' exhibits of Nativity settings.
In some parts of England, the winter holiday begins on Saint Thomas's Day, Dec. 21. That's the time for Doling or Mumping (begging) Day, or "going a gooding" or "going a corning" (from the corn bags that held the take). Both could be translated as making the rounds in the hopes of handouts. Wassailers improved on the tradition by at least singing for their cider in "The Book of Days":
Wassail, wassail, through the town,
If you've got any apples, throw them down;
Up with the stocking, and down with the shoe,
If you've got no apples, money will do;
The jug is white, and the ale is brown,
This is the best house in the town.
In Guatemala, where they worship gods both native and imported, Saint Thomas is also celebrated as the patron saint of Chichicastenango. That worked out well because the solstice, Saint Thomas's Day, is also the day the Maya were accustomed to celebrating their sun god. The entertainment for the feast is the palo voladare, the flying pole dance.
In Swaziland, the king in a headdress of black plumes comes out of seclusion. He signals the return of the sun and the harvest of the crop by biting a pumpkin.
"It's no coincidence that festivals of all religions revolve around light," Norman Rosenthal, National Institute of Mental Health researcher, says. He cites the candles of Hanukah and Luciadagen (in Sweden), not to mention today's electric Christmas lights.
"To celebrate, you need to create more light. All these are a prayer to return of the light. A few days after the solstice, everyone celebrates the passing of the short days."
Washington suffers from an acute lack of bonfires, mountains etc. -- though throughout the town are a number of year-round drum beaters.
But Washington does have parties!
"No question about it, at this time of the year people eat more, crave carbohydrates, sleep later, want company -- and need more light," says Harvey L.P. Resnik, a psychiatrist in private practice and at George Washington University medical school who specializes in seasonal affective disorders (SAD).
Studies show that not just SAD sufferers "but many people have a behavioral change in the same direction," agrees NIMH's Rosenthal, whose book, "Seasons of the Mind," has just come out in a Bantam paperback.
Efforts to counteract the Hibernating Bear Blahs are as many as the lights of the stars.
Rosenthal notes that the festivities begin with Halloween, when the days become noticeably shorter, going on to Thanksgiving and other harvest homes, Christmas, New Year's and so on. "People serve sweets at all these parties," he says.
Alcohol itself is a kind of liquid sweet. "In the dark of the year in Alaska, a significant amount more alcohol is drunk," Rosenthal says.
There it is -- just what everybody needs in the dark of the year: an excuse for eating, sleeping and being cheery, for tomorrow we diet.
As for lighting the long nights, those who haven't earned their own halo, or who are not the eldest daughter in a Swedish family and therefore entitled to play Saint Lucia with a crown of lighted candles, might look into a new device of portable light. Rosenthal, with colleague Thomas Wehr, is the inventor of a light visor.
Put somewhat simplistically, the device sits on a person's head and shines a battery-operated light into his eyes. It's sort of a portable sun. The idea is to increase the pineal gland's secretions of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm.
On the other hand, you could follow the ancient medicine:
Burn the candle at both ends and the middle! Slice the cake! Pour the whiskey! Turn on the colored lights! Uncork the wine! Gorge on the fudge! Stand in the spotlights! Munch on the cookies! Mull the cider! Light up your life!
And happy holidays from the Chronicler, her consort, Chronos, and the little Chronics.