On This Pandemic Solstice (and Yalda Night)

Author Susan Katz Miller, circa 1969.

And so we reach the darkest and shortest day of the year, at the close of a very long, dark year.

In this moment, how do we carry on? As winter descends, our traditions point us to flames, lanterns, sparkles, candles, moonlight, stars. We crave light; we create light. We gather like the first wolves that dared to approach the edge of a prehistoric campfire. Did those wolves stop to ponder why humans build fires? Did they struggle over whether or not to approve our campfire liturgies–the stories or songs we sing? Of course not. Just so, we humans can share wonder and a sense of peace when transfixed by the light of a menorah, of flames reflecting off tinsel, of an electric star perched on a cliff over a little town, of a blazing Yule log in a hearth–whether or not we claim these rituals as our own. Allowing ourselves to feel calm or delight or awe does not require a common language or theology.

The winter solstice is a moment we experience together as denizens of the northern hemisphere. You may see the solstice as a simple scientific fact–without need for supernatural belief of any kind. Or you may embrace the solstice as the inspiration for rituals that date back to the earliest gatherings of humankind. Whether our celebrations are indigenous, Pagan, Abrahamic, Dharmic, or purely astronomical, we gather in the darkness to reassure ourselves that we have each other, and that the light will return.

When my children were in preschool, the very wise teachers left religious celebrations to the families to explain or celebrate at home. They understood that school or government-sponsored Santas would exclude some children. Instead, they created gorgeous paper lanterns with the children in December, and then led a solemn winter solstice parade through town, culminating in hot cocoa. The celebration was secular, and yet profoundly moving. The children learned something of the science of the earth and sun, rotation and axis, but also, the universal human impulse to create warmth and light (and taste sweetness) in darkness.

Just days ago, on Hanukkah, I found myself wrapped in a blanket, gathered around a firepit, in the backyard of a friend who recently welcomed two Afghan refugees into her home. Our guests had never experienced Hanukkah before. We lit the candles, said a blessing, and sang the song about “kindling new the holy lamps,” culminating in these lyrics:

Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing, which will see, all set free, tyrants disappearing.

For people who had just fled the Taliban, the theme of freedom clearly resonated. But Hanukkah has several intertwined themes, and so I mentioned how the timing of this holiday reenforced the theme of light in the darkness for those in the northern hemisphere, connecting Hanukkah with Diwali, Christmas, Yule.

Hanukkah 2021, photo Susan Katz Miller

One of our new Afghan friends immediately saw and explained the connection to the solstice celebration of Yalda Night (also known as Chelle Night) in Persian communities–including in Iran, Afghanistan, the Iranian diaspora in southern California, and now, of course, Afghan refugee communities in a new diaspora. Yalda Night predates Islam, and is tied to the birth of the Zoroastrian sun god, Mithra.

In Persian cultures today, people of all religions celebrate Yalda Night with traditions including staying up all night, reading the Persian poetry of Hafez, and eating pomegranates, watermelon, and charming cakes shaped like watermelon. The red color is thought to represent life blood and the red of dawn. Tonight, our new friends will celebrate their first American Yalda Night around a firepit in Maryland, in a household of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists.

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. –14th-century Persian poet Hafez

We wait for the light, for spring, for relief from this tenacious virus, for the ability to travel and gather without fear, for tyrants to disappear. As we wait, we reach for poetry, song, sweets, and fire, to sustain us. And we reach for each other, even if it must be in masks, even if it must be at a safe distance, like wolves wary and skittish at the outer edge of the campfire.

Tonight is the solstice. Feel the warmth of the fire. The sun will return.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

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