Around here, the winter solstice is a subtle holiday kick-off

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2001

The sun has just about reached its southernmost point in the celestial sphere, our winter solstice, and not a minute too soon. It's pretty dark around here. No wonder we've awarded ourselves a couple of holidays, well-earned, to distract us until we are on the upswing, so to speak, and getting a few more minutes out of the sun each day.

A few years ago, I went with a group far into a cave. We turned off our headlamps before turning back toward the surface and agreed it was totally dark, as dark as you can get. Way creepy dark. But, I have to say, Juneau with no snow on the ground, heavy clouds above and the drizzly mist we all seem to require is just as dark. Driving in this kind of dark, I find myself checking repeatedly to make sure I have my headlights on because I see no light cast on the pavement in front of me. The wet dark sucks it up and converts it into more dark, or mist, hard to say, immediately and totally.

I should take a moment to describe what a treasure this dark time can be with snow and moonlight. There is peaceful exhilaration that comes with a landscape lit by reflected moonlight. People ski, run, go for walks without artificial light, deeply enjoying the way a familiar scene looks beautifully different in the night light. There are those who claim to see better in winter moonlight without their headlights, so drive without them. Not that I would know personally.

Here in Juneau at sea level, the snow-covered moonlight thing is rare enough to be myth, so we go about our business with a flashlight in each pocket, reflective tape all over the children and dogs and hope for the best. People who run or bike on the side of the road have rotating beacons on their heads. I walk to work frequently wearing a reflective vest, but still feel mostly invisible, a shadow in the gloom. That's why the holiday lights everyone puts up are so great.

My neighborhood is pretty lit up now with Christmas lights and it's wonderful. The houses are outlined, the trees are festooned and some people have white-light creatures posed in the yard. It makes a person want to go for an evening walk to see them all. While we are out walking, dazzled by the festive show, we forget that we only had six hours of daylight today and will have a bit less tomorrow. If we mess up and start to dwell on that, the holiday parties we are scheduled to go to will leap into our heads and distract us again. It's a good thing. If we spent a lot of time visualizing our planet and the sun and the fact that most of the rest of the world is getting most of the light, we might all rush to the airport and leave. Then who would shovel the slush?

In about a week a wonderful thing will happen as it does every year. The earth will say, "How beautiful Juneau is, all dressed up in lights. Say, is it just me or is it darker than the bottom of a cave over there? Maybe I can manage a little snow for Christmas for the poor things, at least enough to cover all those extension cords." Earth will shift ever so slightly on her axis for a better view and settle back down to enjoy our holiday lights. The magic we need will have been done and we'll start getting a few more minutes of light each day. We won't notice because we are busy shopping, baking, breaking from school or shoveling slush. But at some primal level, we know something happened, that the dark will pass and there will be light again. With this subtle but critical assurance, we can relax and celebrate Christmas and the New Year with feeling. We can even sing "Jingle Bell Rock" at the top of our lungs and feel good about it. By the time we take down the lights and put away the yard deer, we will be able to see well enough to do the job with only one flashlight. Heck, we'll have six hours and 15 minutes of daylight. Where are my shades?

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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