Dark, Delightful December


December is already a week and a half old! This festive twelfth month is hurtling along like a bobsled heading down an icy hill.

Before you know it, Christmas will have come and gone, the month will end, and a brand new year will begin. We’ll be off and running on another journey along the endless circular pathway around the sun.

Between decorating and gift shopping, crowds and traffic, things we want to do, have to do, and should do—parties, school plays, church services, dinners and lunches and holiday meet-up visits with friends and family—it’s not so much a question of prioritizing and conquering as surviving and remaining civil.

I’ve found a reckless and guilt-free indulgence in handfuls of fresh-baked cookies will go a long way toward mitigating any lack of time, energy, or financial fortitude.

Thumbprints, snickerdoodles, peppermint swirls, shortbread, dream bars, or good old favorites such as oatmeal or chocolate chip. What’s in your cookie bag doesn’t matter so long as there’s a sufficient quantity. Gimmie a big sack of homemade gingerbread men and I can power through hours of malls and parking lots, and even those murderous throngs wielding their lethal carts and baskets.

December’s name comes from the Latin “decem,” meaning tenth. This now-confusing nomenclature for our twelfth month came when the Romans decided to add a couple of months to the calendar. September, October, and November were similarly affected.

The Roman feast of Saturnalia was held on December seventeenth. Romans also observed a festival later in the month to honor the solstice. Saxons had a similar December celebration dedicated to Thor, god of thunder.

In fact, long before Christianity, the month of December was considered holy by various peoples. There were solstice-based festivals or ceremonies from the Cave of the Sun (now called New Grange) in Ireland, to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, plus sites in the ancient pre-classical world of the Mediterranean, South America, Egypt—and the list goes on and is worldwide.

Thanks to the winter solstice, December has the dubious honor of being the darkest month of the entire year. Daily daylight lengths barely make it beyond the nine-hour mark. By contrast, June’s days average well over fifteen hours.

A friend who works long hours inside a sprawling business complex says she dreads December because “I never see the sun except on my day off.”

I expect this can’t be a good month for those folks prone to seasonal affective disorders—SAD—though I don’t recall hearing much complaining until later on, more into mid-winter. Perhaps the symptoms don’t kick in with full vengeance until a certain deficit level of daylight deprivation has been reached. Or maybe it’s because the days between Thanksgiving and New Year are so hectic and busy, many SAD sufferers are simply too harried to accede to their condition.

My Celtic forbearers referred to this period of the year as “an dudlach,” or “the gloom.” Their New Year and the season they called Wintertide, began November 1st, with the festival of Samhain, and continued until Imbolc, which began on the first day of February. In the middle was a period when sacrifices and offerings were made to the “Cailleach” or “Old Woman” who ruled over the winter season.

Celts saw this mid-December span as encompassing two divisions—the pre-solstice one being “Dumannios,” or the “Darkest Depths,” and “Riuros,” the “Cold Time,” which followed the solstice. As part of this winter ceremonial activity, long-dead ancestors were appeased, and divination practiced. There was much storytelling around the hearthfire.

My Irish heritage notwithstanding, I’ve never had a problem or much negative awareness regarding December’s darkness. In fact, I’ve always visualized December as a month filled with bright and sparkling light—the exact opposite of dreary.

I truly love this time of the year—the ancient quiet of a snowy woods, the delicate aeolian harp moan of wind coursing over a pine-clad hill. I find the shape and texture of December’s fundamental landscapes extraordinary, soothing, almost mystical.

Perhaps this clearly subjective viewpoint is partly due to the amount of time I spend outside during December—hiking, camping, picture taking, hunting, even fishing. December has a wealth of treasures and activities to indulge in and explore.

I’m often a surly shopper. My general approach is—get in, grab what I want, get out. The quicker the better, though one that’s often impossible this time of year. So I appease my Grinch-prone attitude by promising myself a “reward ramble” to do something outside as soon as I can pay the cashier and flee the parking lot.

The solstice will pass in just over a week when the pendulum reverses as the sun begins heading back our way—delivering a burgeoning allotment of precious daylight plus the promise of brighter tomorrows.

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