Winter Solstice: Time in the Dark

I don’t know if this is something that is on your radar or not, but today is the winter solstice–the shortest day of the year.  Today we will see less hours of daylight than at any other time (at least in the northern hemisphere) until next winter.  I have always been fascinated by the solstices–both summer and winter.  They feel like a concrete reminder that we are part of a bigger world, a world that can affect us whether we like it or not.

I have a special affection for the winter solstice.  I know that may seem a bit odd.  After all, it’s cold, and dark.  And if you’re in the Midwest, the cold and dark can often be accompanied by the worst of all weather phenomena: freezing rain.  It’s in that pre-Christmas stretch, where you can’t help being affected by stores that are picked over, traffic patterns that are out of wack, and busy schedules–no matter what traditions you celebrate (or dread).  In case you missed it earlier, there is less light than any other day of the year.  All in all, there appears to very little to recommend the winter solstice as anything other than a day to be endured.

There are two things that make me like the winter solstice:

We All Spend Time in the Dark

No one gets through life without time in the dark, both literally and figuratively.  Darkness, whether it’s from emotional pain, physical pain, or spiritual pain–is a part of the human experience.  And yet, I sometimes feel like we live in a culture that’s focused on artificial light.  We don’t make a lot of room for pain.  We’re uncomfortable and uncertain about how to talk to folks with disabilities or serious illnesses.  We often expect people to “get over” grief–because we’re not sure what to do with their sadness and loss.  When people ask how we’re doing, the rote answer is “okay.”  Not because it’s true (more about “okay” in another post), but because we don’t trust one another to hear the truth.  Or we don’t have the energy to speak the truth.  No matter the reason, we take our pain and darkness and hide it away from one another.

What I appreciate about the winter solstice is the reminder that the darkness affects us all.  I see it as a great conversation starter.  Older cultures used to observe this shortest day together.  They would gather and share the experience of darkness.  I don’t think that it’s coincidental that those cultures also made more space for emotional darkness.  We can all benefit from the reminder that the darkness is a shared experience.

The Dark Diminishes

The second thing that I like about winter solstice is that it’s a turning point.  Yes, it’s the shortest day of the year, but it also marks the moment when the light begins to return.  The day after winter solstice is a tiny bit longer.  And the next is even more light-filled.  This may be one of the most hopeful symbols out there.

When people ask me “how can you do your job?” they are asking about how I can be comfortable with the pain and emotional darkness that brings people to therapy.  For me, the answer to that question is in the winter solstice.  I see pain and darkness as natural parts of our lives.  We can’t avoid them, but we can move through them, make progress in our healing, and walk together toward the spaces where there is light.  To go back to older cultures, one part of the winter solstice observation was to create light for one another, to hold the light even in darkness.  I believe that therapy can be that light in the winter solstice moments of life.  And I believe that we all come to our turning point, where the dark lessens.  The change isn’t immediate or dramatic, but it’s real.

Holding the Light

If you’re reading this in a moment of darkness, I’d love to know who’s holding light for you right now?  What kind of support do you need as you walk through the hard things in life?  I hope that you find comfort and connection, that you’re able to reach out for whatever support you need until the darkness starts to diminish.


Photo Credit: Lunar Eclipse on Winter Solstice by Bruce McKay Yellow Snow Photography via Flickr

13 thoughts on “Winter Solstice: Time in the Dark

  1. Terrific post, Ann, articulate and meaningful. My husband died in November of 1999, and after the solstice in December of that year, I remarked on the lengthening days to friends and relatives, in part as a way of reminding myself that there would be sun in my life again someday. I had a wonderful counselor during that time and strongly, ADAMANTLY urge others who’ve experienced a loss to find someone like you to talk to. From what I understand about how the brain works, talking about pain moves it from the inarticulate and visceral to the verbal and somewhat abstract, which gives us a handle to manage it. I like to say it moves “from mystery to history”. Keep up the great work!

    1. Nora,

      Thank you so much for sharing part of your own story with us. How beautiful that you were able to notice the change in light at such a painful moment. And, yes, processing pain helps us move through it. Thank you also for using your experience in therapy as a light to help others in their time of pain. Your words mean a great deal to me.


  2. Thank you Ann for your insightful post based on the evocative image of the winter solstice. One of the key points that emerges for me in reading it is the importance of acknowledging the reality of darkness in our lives. It’s painful but, at least in my experience, such brutal honesty is indispensable in the process of seeking the light. David

  3. Hi Ann – I love this post. I am a great fan of the pagan festivals, and sometimes do posts on those days. In Chinese Medicine (I studied shiatsu & Jin Shin Do(r) Acupressure), the Winter is a time for turning inward, a time for introspection, it has the beautiful energy of being, not doing. So the expectations of an agrarian society were that people slowed down, went to bed earlier and accepted the bodymind seasonal changes, as in rest for a more active season. With artificial light, we no longer rest, we go go go and burn out. I always think of the winter solstice as a time for social gathering, then spiritual rest in preparation for the active spring & summer.

    1. Kathy,

      Thank you. I think that in our 24/7 always-on culture, we sometimes need reminders that we have physical bodies that respond to the physical world around us. 🙂


    1. Rosie,

      I’m just getting caught up on my comment responses, and I was so excited to see your name. From you, a post compliment means a lot!


  4. Hello Doctor,

    My dear husband died on December 22,2011. I printed your article on the winter solstice that day and i put it away with papers. I am on the computer and read it again today 10/12/12. This helps about there being light again. I have just started going to a grief counceling group. there are still days when i cant stop crying, as you can quess i am cryin now. I would like to thank you for you words.


    1. Mary,

      I am so sorry for your loss. Your tears are important, and you deserve support as you grieve. I’m glad to hear that you are getting support in the grief group. And I am thrilled to hear that the post felt helpful–that is exactly what I hope happens when I write.


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