“The winter solstice reminds us that light is coming, that darkness is never here to stay.”

From a New York Times column by Margaret Renkl headlined “Looking for Light on the Longest Night of the Year”:

NASHVILLE — Midway through December, in the midst of an unseasonable warm spell, I sent a text to the gang: “Shall we meet on our deck around 6:30?”

These are the friends with whom we raised a collective 10 children, the friends who have seen us through losses big and small, worries big and small, joys and triumphs big and small, and whom we have seen through the same kinds of losses and worries, joys and triumphs. . . .

That night there was only the barest sliver of a moon, which disappeared beneath deep cloud cover early on, and all the stars with it, but there was plenty of light even in that profound darkness. . . .

It was a quiet, murmuring kind of evening, and I made some remark I can’t remember exactly, something about how comforting it is that this season of lights always coincides with the darkest time of the year.

“That’s not a coincidence,” said the historian in the group.

Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the night when there are more minutes of darkness than on any other night of the year. Afterward, days will begin to lengthen, with more light than the day before, until the summer solstice arrives on June 20, and nights begin to grow longer again.

Since long before Jews began to celebrate Hanukkah and Christians began to celebrate Christmas, ancient peoples across the Northern Hemisphere marked the arrival of the winter solstice. It’s not hard to imagine why they felt compelled to perform rituals meant to summon the sun or rejoice in its rebirth.

We are mortal creatures with no fangs and no claws and no fur, shivering in the cold, vulnerable to predators lurking in the darkness. Why wouldn’t we pray for the return of light and warmth?

Modern pagans still celebrate the solstice, but this year has brought fresh reminders to everyone else of just how close we remain to the earliest peoples, even deep into the 21st century. As we live with the fear of a rapidly spreading virus for which there is no cure and watch the apotheosis of political tribalism unfold on the national stage, we are forced to admit that we are nearer to the ancients than we may have cared to believe.

And yet there is light, even now.

Vaccines that protect against the coronavirus are making their way across the globe, the result of unprecedented ingenuity and cooperation. . . .

The global climate catastrophe is still unfolding at a rate that, left unchecked, will wreak planetary devastation, but there are signs that the global community is beginning to take carbon reduction seriously. If these nations keep their promises, and if President-elect Joe Biden honors his own, we might manage yet to stave off the very worst disasters.

First there is winter to get through, for the solstice signals not only a time of increasing light but also the start of a new season. . . .

The day is coming when we will sit around tables together again and carelessly offer one another a taste of what’s on our plates. We will go to the movies again and read books among strangers in coffeehouses again and sing out loud at church services and concerts again. We will tell jokes in the break room at work again and blow out the candles on our birthday cakes again. We may even trust our government again.

That’s the great promise of the solstice: Like steadfast friends who see us through everything a cold world can throw our way, the solstice reminds us, every year, that light is coming. It tells us that darkness is never here to stay.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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