December, in the northern hemisphere, heralds the darkest time of the year, both literally and, for many of us, metaphorically. For many, in 2016, the time might even feel darker than usual. The return of the sun and the metaphorical time of harvest might seem even more distant, even more uncertain.
Just when it is so dark, why then would the creators of our myths choose to tell us that Buddha became enlightened in December? Or that Jesus Christ and Mohammed were both born in December? Or that in December, as celebrated during Hanukkah, the temple was re-enlivened?
After all, the twenty-first day of December, in the northern hemisphere, is the shortest day of the year. Until the 16th Century in Europe, it was a time of such crisis that the livestock were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed what scant food existed. In late fall and early winter, meat was plentiful and there were feasts like the North American Thanksgiving.
But then came the winter famine. A time of quiet. Of eating less. Of working less. Of stillness and forced rest because the food calories for activity were not there (this is the biological origin of season affective disorder, evolution’s way of forcing us to stop, by the way). And perhaps also came fear and despair. Fear that the sun may not come back soon enough. Despair that the last year’s sun was not lived quite as it should have been.
So what is the metaphorical meaning of the prophets’ births and awakening at this time, just when things are at their darkest? I think it is because, starting with the twenty-second day of December, the days get longer and the world begins to wake up. “It Only Gets Better from Here,” said a December 21st headline in USA Today. It is the beginning of the return of the sun—both literally and metaphorically.
In December, the Christmas and other seasonal myths tell us, the prophets within us are born and awakened—even if we don’t yet feel it. We may not know what future their birth within us will bring. We may not know exactly when the darkness will end. But in this time of forced darkness, at a mythological level, our spirits are reawakening. Not yet matured. Not yet fulfilled. But promised.
Allow the darkness. Allow the grief. Allow the fear. In December, Buddha has only just become awakened. Jesus and Mohammed have only just been born. They have not yet begun to teach and don’t yet even know how.
It is ok, in this season, to not know quite how to help the world in its darkness. But remember the resolution of the New Year which is born of the short, dark days. Next comes the as-yet unrealized promises we make to the gods and to the cosmos and to ourselves.
The time of darkness presages our dawn. The sun returns. This, the law of nature, is to me the consolation of December and other dark times.