In the Unitarian-Universalist church I attended as a child, the big December tradition was the making of Yule logs. Church members donated logs and various sprigs, cones, and berries for weeks. When the big day came, parent volunteers fervently beat melted paraffin wax and gave you a little dollop to use for sticking natural elements to your log. Then they sprayed it with fake snow, the only snow we’d see that Christmas in our Southern California town.
When your log was done, you were given a small, photocopied sheet explaining the significance of the Yule log in certain Pagan cultures. You were supposed to tack the sheet to the end of your log and write your name on it.
From what I recall, the sheet explained that Pagans would burn a big log around the time of the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year. The log was supposed to encourage the sun to return, and, lo and behold, it slowly did. (For a slightly more detailed explanation of the Pagan Yule custom, see this Wikipedia entry.)
Like our Pagan ancestors, we’ve noticed in recent weeks that the world is a darker place. And the darkness hits its low point today, the Winter Solstice. It’s referred to as the shortest day of the year. And it is short, daylight-wise, but sometimes it can feel like a pretty long day, emotionally.
Where I find hope in the Winter Solstice, though, is that the days can only get brighter from here. I will use data from my own home region, Chicago, to illustrate this point about brighter days. According to timeanddate.com, today, on the shortest day of the year, we will have 9 hours, 7 minutes, and 43 seconds of daylight.
Tomorrow, we will have 9 hours, 7 minutes, and 45 seconds of daylight. A big whopping 2 seconds more of daylight than we had the day before. It doesn’t feel like much of a victory.
Except, the day after that, we get 5 more seconds of daylight. Then the next day we get 10 more seconds, and the day after that 14 more seconds. By New Year’s Eve, a mere ten days from now, we’ll have 3 minutes and 13 seconds more daylight than we’ll have today. A month from now, on January 21, we’ll have 9 hours, 39 minutes, and 27 seconds of daylight. That’s a whole 31 minutes and 40 seconds more daylight than we have today.
Now, I know what you’re saying. Big fucking deal. Half an hour of daylight gained in a month. It’s still too dark. And you’re right. I’m pining for summer evenings at the pool until 8 p.m. as much as you are.
But what you have to realize is that each day it gets a little brighter. Not only that, the interval by which each successive day gets brighter increases: 2 more seconds of daylight, 5 more seconds, 10 more … all the way until Daylight Saving Time in March, when we’re gaining almost 3 minutes of daylight from one day to the next.
To me, this pattern of increase in daylight is the perfect metaphor for recovery from depression. Like the change in daylight, the progression from emotional darkness to light happens in tiny intervals. One day you realize you can do a chore you couldn’t bring yourself to do the day before. Or maybe you see that your crying has gone from hopeless, guttural sobbing to quiet, gentle weeping.
It’s still dark, it’s just a little less dark.
And like the daily intervals of increase in daylight, you find that your depression begins to improve in greater intervals as well. The spark of light you found when you could fold that growing pile of laundry gives you the hope to take a short walk around the block the next day. And maybe by a week later, you’ve brought yourself back to the gym. Soon you go from thinking life is the worst thing in the world to thinking maybe life is tolerable, and then to thinking you can definitely cope with this life thing, and then someday to actually enjoying life.
A little bit of light gives way to a little bit more, and a little bit more after that. It just takes time.
It would be nice to think all the light would come back at once. But it takes six months for the earth to go from Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice. You have to give yourself some time, too.