Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice.

Lighting the Solstice Darkness

Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice. Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice.

Winter Solstice, the day the sun “stands still” in its apparent journey southward, is the turning-point in my personal year.

The calendar year runs ten more days past solstice, but to me, the old year ends the day the sun pauses, when the tilt in earth’s axis–our planet rotates through space at a surprising 23.5 degrees off vertical–means the Northern Hemisphere is pointed as far from the sun as it will get.

After Winter Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere eases ever so slowly back toward the sun’s light and warmth—the logical beginning of the new year to me.

Winter Solstice is the year’s shortest day in this hemisphere, averaging nine and a half hours long, depending on latitude and topography, leaving about fourteen and a half hours of darkness.

Sunset at 4:35 p.m. Sunset at 4:35 p.m.

If you live where hills or mountains block the sunrise and sunset, as I do, your shortest day may be considerably shorter.

The sun here rose over a 10,000-foot-high ridge at a few minutes before eight yesterday, and set at behind a 13,000-plus-foot peak at about four-thirty. That’s only an eight-and-a-half hour day and a long fifteen and a half hours of night.

Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice with luminarias, votive candles in paper bags. (These “little lights” are called farolitos in northern New Mexico and luminarias across the rest of the Southwest and Mexico.)

Each year on solstice night we would throw a “Light the Darkness” party to celebrate earth’s turn toward light and warmth. A crowd of friends and family would help us fill, place and light luminarias along our half-block.

Luminarias line the sidewalk with Salida's Christmas Mountain in the background. Luminarias line the sidewalk with Salida’s Christmas Mountain in the background.

We’d troop inside to get warm, drink the eggnog I make just once a year (scroll to the bottom of the link for the recipe), and nosh on holiday goodies.

Outside, the little candles in their bags glowed, lighting the longest night; inside, the love and cheer lit our hearts.

The year Richard died, we held the celebration of his life on the Saturday closest to Winter Solstice, and the crowd who turned out helped us light luminarias in his memory. Last year, my first full year alone, I revived the Light the Darkness party.

This year I intended to, but couldn’t. Terraphilia, the house that accommodated crowds, is no longer mine, my new, much smaller nest isn’t finished, and the truth is, Richard was the one who thrived on crowds and loved a big party. (I did my best to hide in the kitchen.)

Still, I wanted to honor the turning of the season and year, and the tradition that so delighted my late love. I needed to light the metaphorical darkness I feel from national and international events, and the personal darkness that creeps in from time to time as I confront the daily task of shaping a new life alone.

Lighting the dusk on the longest night of the year.... Lighting the dusk on the longest night of the year….

So I pulled the box of luminaria bags off a shelf in the garage, dug out a bucket of sand, found candles, and filled two dozen luminarias, just enough to line the retaining wall that will one day (soon, I hope) support my front entry deck, and to light the seating area and steps on the street side of Creek House.

At dusk, I lit each candle, and watched as the bags began to glow, magnifying each tiny flame. Then I went inside and made a batch of eggnog to toast my late love, and to “jar” as gifts.

A bitter wind sprang up as I headed to bed, and I wondered if my luminaria candles would stay lit. Or if the bags would catch fire in the wind and burn up. Or if roving mule deer–Salida’s yard rats–would eat them. (Creative worrying is one of my talents.)

Still lit at dawn after the longest night Still lit at dawn after the longest night

This morning when I woke and looked outside, all two dozen luminarias glowed in the stillness before dawn.

A small miracle, and one I take as a good sign for the beginning of my new year.