It grows darker and darker now, for longer and longer. The sun sets as early as 5 in the afternoon, and the dawn often brings only a narrow golden band that is all too soon absorbed by the grey overhang. When we have sunshine, it is so fleeting that we rush to put our coats on and go for a walk before it vanishes. More often, the sun is a mere pewter disc, briefly glimpsed and, apparently, ephemeral.
Even if we don’t observe the liturgical season of Advent, we experience advent as a sense of something coming into being, an undisclosed incipience. This time of year, we sink into a sense of waiting and of longing, an ancient yearning for the end of so much darkness. Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen sees it as a “time for deepening” when an odd mixture of joy and despair shapes our moods and feelings – joy if we are nurtured by a loving community and despair if we find ourselves alone.
Happiness, we are told, springs from attachment – to community, to family, to friends we are fond of or to someone deeply loved. When people nurture children or fall in love,” writes Maia Szalavitz in an article about why people take opioids, “hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health.” Conversely, “when we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drug.”
In countries like Finland and Denmark, where there are as little as six hours of daylight, Scandinavians seek to ward off winter gloom by producing an atmosphere of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah), a mood of cozy, warm comfort. This can be a cup of coffee or tea or cocoa and a good book in your most comfortable chair, or it can be a gathering of friends or family for long winter talks and hilarious games.
To set the mood you need something baking in your oven, fire your fireplace and candles on the mantle, as well as evergreens and glittering ornaments fetched out from (dark) attics and basements.
“He seems very nice,” my mother would say when I brought a suitor home for her inspection, “but is he good for forty years of long winter evenings?” (Reader, he was)
The principal holiday of the season antedates Christian Christmas as the Winter Solstice, when our primitive fears that it will get darker and darker forever are alleviated by the observation that – very gradually and at first barely discernably -the year has turned and our days will get lighter and lighter from now on. And that is why candles are lit everywhere to welcome the returning light and urge it on its way; and why, in Celtic traditions, we “open wide the guesting door” to family and friends and to all those in need of the solace of company.
When I was growing up, we attended midnight service on Christmas eve. Full of every kind of expectation, we sat silently in the pitch dark sanctuary until an old chorister named Chauncey appeared at the door to sing, in a deep a capella voice,” Oh come, oh come Emmanuel” as he made his way up the aisle, swinging a dimly lit kerosene lantern. When he reached the chancel, candles sprang into light all over the church.
I used that memory in my novel Fly Out of the Darkness, so here is that take on Advent, with my wishes for your joyous advent, profound hygge, merry Christmas, and strength for the new year.