The phrase seemed slightly off-brand when Biden used it in October. Donald Trump had the monopoly on apocalypse and doom, which he imputed to Democrats, socialists and other, shadowy enemies of the state. Biden was staking out the usual American high ground of sunny optimism. But the warning was prescient, and as the darkness and cold has crept on us, I find those words haunting and unshakable.
It is an old trope, a hollow phrase, often a poetic cliche. All winters are dark, and get darker the farther one lives from the equator. We tend to think of dark days as something in the past, something our parents or grandparents lived through. It was a dark winter in 1777-78, when the Continental Army spent the season at Valley Forge, though mainly because of disease, not cold or snow. The pathetic fallacy — the almost irresistible tendency to project human feelings on inanimate things, like the weather — inclines us to remember the winters during periods of crisis — wars, economic depressions and pandemics — as particularly dark, no matter how clement the weather.
When Biden used the phrase, it was as much a warning as a prediction. But his warning, like so many before it, went unheeded, and now we are all left grappling, once again, with the consequences. It is unsettling to think of living through this kind of darkness, as if it is presumptuous to place ourselves in a historical moment, to compare this current darkness with the tribulations endured by others decades or centuries ago. How bad will it get? How widely will the pain be shared? How much do we need to partake of the general suffering to be touched by a dark winter?
The Christmas season adds a particular gothic hue to the general malaise. I keep thinking of Christian iconography — images of the Annunciation to the shepherds — among them the great Rembrandt etching “The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds,” in which a celestial figure appears to a few terrified shepherds, waked from the gloom of a wild and benighted patch of hilly ground. One of them runs in terror, out of the light and back into the darkness, as if the darkness is at least a known thing, menacing but familiar. Or Charles Angrand’s 1894 charcoal drawing “The Annunciation to the Shepherds,” in which two huddled figures are barely visible in a faint shaft of light, the darkness woven into the paper as deeply as it seems woven into the shepherds themselves.
The phrase “dark winter,” spoken by an American politician who foregrounds the importance of his religious faith, has a specifically Christian resonance, particularly as we approach the 25th of December. Dark winters are harnessed, like a logical inevitability, to the idea of rebirth or renewal. This may be illusory — sometimes misery just compounds — but it is deeply baked into how the Western world conceives of the season. The master of this trope, Charles Dickens, left volumes of stories — his Christmas novels and tales, appearing annually in the magazines he edited — in which he used deeply troubling, even sadistic narratives of violence and loss to set up often unconvincing scenes of redemption. For Dickens, Christmas is something like an extended Halloween shackled to a quick Easter.
“A Christmas Carol” is, of course, the most famous, and one of the most palatable to contemporary audiences. I recently spent a week reading some of the others, including a story called “The Wreck of the Golden Mary,” which appears in an 1880 set of Dickens’s complete works I’ve kept for distraction on long winter nights. The story, as it appears in many editions, seems more a work of the bloody, nihilistic 20th century than the more mannered world of 19th-century English letters: A captain and his first mate steer a boat, full of disparate passengers, to California during the Gold Rush. In the depths of night, the boat strikes an iceberg and sinks. The survivors struggle to stay alive on crowded lifeboats. A little girl, the joy of all aboard, dies of hunger and her body is thrown overboard. And then the captain collapses and the story ends.
I was arguing aloud with the old, green-bound volume when the story ended, too troubled to go to sleep, and deeply angered by the lack of closure in an incredibly grim tale that seems to have only the slightest pretext of anything to do with Christmas (they set sail during the holiday week). So I dug a little deeper, and discovered that the open-endedness of the story wasn’t intentional. Only the text presumed to be by Dickens was included in most editions of his work, not the contributions of other writers who were invited to contribute to the collaborative tale, including Wilkie Collins, who finished the story (the survivors are rescued, completing the obligatory arc of suffering and redemption).
Yet the story as it appears in most editions — the truncated torso by Dickens that starts but doesn’t finish the tale — seems oddly perfect for our current moment, even if it is terrifying in its bleakness. It captures the sense of being midstream — weeks into a dark winter, with no clarity about what is coming. It also functions as a symbol for what we are missing — the maddening absence of others, the sense that we need other people to complete our world. The other writers who were originally part of this joint effort but who have been edited out of this strange half-a-tale by Dickens can stand for all the people who would ordinarily share the burden of this strange time with us, but who must remain socially distanced.
When Dickens wrote his Christmas tales, he was, like other Victorian authors, trying to make sense of profound changes in economic life, the growing abstraction of money and wealth in a society that was industrializing and increasingly using paper money and intangible investments to harbor wealth. Children with golden curls, like the little girl who dies on the boat, are often compared to, or even substituted for, sacks of gold, as authors strove to give moral and sentimental dimension to an economic system that seemed arbitrary, remote, unreal and often cruel.
This particular dark winter comes on as our social relations with other people seem as intangible and bewildering to us as the emerging economic realities of 19th-century England did to people then. It’s common, now, to note how at the moment we most need the emotional support of others, we are obliged to remain distant.
But it isn’t just the emotional support that’s distant. It’s also the fact that we can’t make sense of history, the history we are living, without living it deeply and in collaboration with others. Dickens’s Christmas stories are often cobbled together from seemingly unrelated little tales, people in a lifeboat telling us their life story or some morally revelatory tale, like the pilgrims walking to Canterbury.
It is the lack of proximity to those stories, the immediacy of hearing loved ones talk about their own experience of this “dark winter,” that makes this darkness so difficult to comprehend and anatomize. When people say that this moment in world history feels unreal, they are grasping at a fairly simple but elusive truth. It is unreal because reality is socially constructed, and we are experiencing a vast disruption of our usual social ties.
So, it feels as if we are on Dickens’s errant lifeboats, adrift. Or as confused and frantic as Rembrandt’s terrified shepherd. Or, like the haunted figures in Angrand’s drawing, constituted neither of light nor darkness, but something in between, our own selves as inscrutable to us as the future, which may or may not end with a return to the light.