It’s an interesting time of the year and I believe we, as a species, are predisposed to it.
I’ll put it this way: I bet at some time in your life you’ve been exposed to one of those nifty little night lights with the electric eye, most likely in a childhood bedroom or at least at gramma’s house, probably in her guest bathroom, the one with the soap shaped like seashells that you weren’t allowed to touch. I’m sure if you close your eyes for a moment and regress into your five-year old self you can remember the fascination of that wondrous eye. You’d place your finger over the convex crystal and marvel as the light came on, remove your finger to watch the light go out; hesitant at first because it looked so much like a real eye, a little more nervous when it seemed to respond to your presence. Of course, now as a grown-up, you are sure of your place in the world and know that it is simply a switch, a photoelectric cell, which merely closes a circuit in the absence of ambient light.
But, take for a moment our own neuro-electric infrastructure, eons of evolution and we are still susceptible to the “thumb over our third eye”. Humans are diurnal creatures by habit and as modern men and women we’re forced to work in caves of steel and glass, often at off hours. By this time of year leaving for and returning from work in the dark and for most of us, unlike our friend the night light, shielding us from the sun does not set off an inner glow. But we do have the advantage of knowing that the days are lengthening again and maybe we’re looking forward to that trip coming up in February when we’ll spend a week in Jackson, or Mammoth, or St Maarten.
Yet still we cling to a Bronze Age convention, a holiday season, pick your flavor, which has become a parody of itself. Culture, like any organism, evolves and in doing so it doesn’t eschew all that came before it; the commonalities remain between extinct and extant, if only as vestigial appendages. Maybe that’s why we get a little gloomy as the days get shorter and less sunlight traverses the retina, over the optic nerve, finally and faintly exciting the suprachiasmatic nuclei and pineal gland setting our internal clock and rhythm. The same analogous structures and pathways we share with all vertebrates. Edison’s lightbulb may have extended the work day but it did not cause these organs to atrophy and die.
So likewise we celebrate, as our neolithic forebears did, the winter solstice. A commonality across the planet, where it was spawned independently by dread of the coming darkness and hope of surviving until the vernal equinox. After being usurped, blended and transmitted by conquering culture after conquering culture it continues in some fashion in every culture across the globe. It survives in part, perhaps unfortunately, beacuse we need a reminder to take time out of our chaotic lives, to sit down for a meal with family and friends, to open that bottle of wine we’ve been saving for no good reason at all and to just be.