Monday, December 16, 2013

Why celebrate?

Last night was the first night in our "new" house when I was actually cold while sleeping. We have a tall skinny house and heat rises, so it's not been a problem till now. But now it's very cold outside, and the cold is seeping in. My teeny backyard is filled up with snow. It seems only yesterday it was all lush and green and filled with tasty tomatoes and peppers. But this is winter. Everything is dormant. The blanket of snow (and the University's winter break) brings quiet to our little urban neighborhood. Even the snowplows seem quiet with their golden twinkling lights. It's the time of year when we all hunker down under our blankets and cuddle. Just like my raspberry bushes, in their winter dormancy.

The winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, has been meaningful to humans since we became aware. It was the deadest, darkest night. Ancient humans may have had superstitious ideas about winter. They seem to have thought that if they didn't do things exactly right, the sun would not return and bring life back to the world. Now we know what causes the variations of daylight hours throughout the year (the earth's axial tilt), and we know that our actions have no bearing on how or why that happens, but it's still nice to take a moment at midwinter and reflect on the wonder of winter. Many people in the US celebrate some form of religious holiday this time of year (most notably Christmas and Hanukkah) but what about those of us who are not religious? I suppose some people don't bother thinking about it. They just go on with their lives, as if the changing seasons have no effect on them. And I can't blame them. For many people, winter is not really significantly different from summer. They still have to go to work, pay bills, grocery shop...

But for me, winter is my favorite season. And the end of December is the epitome of that precious time. The shortest days of the year. The least sunshine. The most dark. (Maybe not the coldest...Nature likes to save that for February around here.) In these last weeks of December, I like to take a moment and remember how different people's lives were, not so long ago. As I sit here in my warm and well-lit home, I remember that the first public electricity supply was in Surrey (UK) in 1881. The Chicago El started operation in 1892 for the World's Fair. Before that, people heated with wood or coal (it's not clear when people started using gas to heat, but gas was not commercially available in the US till the 1830s). And they lit their houses by candles (later, gas). And they travelled by horse, or they walked. The winters were cold. The winters were DIRTY. People couldn't often take full baths. To fully submerge oneself was cold and hazardous to health. They just sponged off the stinkiest, dirtiest bits and made do.

It was not so long ago, in the history of humankind, that winter was a dangerous and scary time of year.

I am not religious. I don't thank god for my warm home. I don't thank god for my grandmother's hand-me-down comfy chair. I am, however, very grateful for them. I'm grateful that my mother didn't get rid of these chairs, even though she thinks they are ugly. I am grateful to those who have made the scientific discoveries that have made my comfort possible. I am grateful to the people who made my (store-bought) warm clothes. I am grateful to those who picked the leaves for my evening tea, and those who shipped them here from India. I am grateful to the farmer who raised the chicken I made into soup today. I am grateful to the Wisconsin artisan who made my beautiful spinning wheel. And to the people who work to keep the power and gas supply running to my luxurious (by the standards of 150 years ago) home.

Do I have everything I can think of? No. But I certainly have more than I need. And for that I am very grateful.

To me, that's what celebrating the winter holidays is for.

Being mindful that for me, in this time and place, winter can be a time of pleasure and beauty and enjoyment instead of a time of cold and fear and danger, as it was for so many hundreds of generations of my ancestors. And I hope and dream that my descendants' reality is even better than mine.

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