Blackness, darkness, emptiness–this time of year, where we are at the apex of the slumbering sunlight, gives us permission to enter the realm of soul and emotion. It is time for a cyclical death. Not too long ago, I chose to forego the winter holiday celebrations with friends and family each year, and instead, hibernate. It was a deliberate space where I dropped into stillness and exhaustion from the year, resting my body and mind. As an academic, I have been fortunate to have a true winter break and I would spend much of it in my pajamas, surrounded by books, cups of coffee and tea, journals, and to be honest, abundant tissues to allow the sadness from my year to pour out in unbounded waves. I thought of it as a process of dying–allowing all of the suffering of the year to consume me, to rest, and to enter into a rebirth with the return of light and the new year.
This time of the year holds irony as our bodies tell us to surrender to stillness, reflection, and rest, yet our culture amps up the need for heightened consumerism, parties, travel, and bigger and brighter joy. I grew up celebrating Christmas–less with the religious associations and more with the rites of family, presents, and celebration.
As a contemplative with one foot in Buddhism and most of my body in earth-based traditions, I often question the intent and practicality of formal religious traditions within the present context. I often speak to my students about the dangers of suitcase religions–those traditions that may accompany you wherever you go–through a book, a house of worship, or a clergy that holds the words and practices of a particular dogma. While I hold respect for such orientations, as someone who is most interested in the health of our communities along ecological and social healing, I am wary of traditions that are not tied to our immediate place–our bioregions and peoples whom we broadly cohabitate with.
Indigenous, earth-based peoples around the world have for time immemorial participated in rituals and ceremonies that honor their relationships with their direct place, their homes. These are about respect and kinship with one’s community–the trees, waters, animals, spirits–all of the beings of both the seen and unseen world–remembrance and renewal of our sacred reciprocity with one another. Most of us lack this place-bound bond. We celebrate holidays with little connection to our actual communities.
In our global, corporatized world, we can travel to most places and have the same stores and conveniences with an anonymity and security that keeps us safe in our cocoons. This seems true of our holiday celebrations where the same accoutrements–decorations, services, songs, and traditions—can be found in most cities and towns. We are dangerously homogenous, having little relationship to our ecological homes. The danger arises in forgetting that we have responsibilities to the landscapes we live upon, to ensure their survival and renewal.
I often appreciate the teachings of Shariff Abdullah in his book Creating a World That Works for All, who speaks of keepers, breakers, and menders. The keepers represent those indigenous communities who have kept their relationships with their local landscapes intact, with respect and reciprocity. The breakers are those steeped in western and global corporatized culture who have lost their sacred connection to Earth and instead exploit her through various forms of acquisition and misuse. The menders are those of us who are relearning how to live in healthy balance with all living beings – those interested in restoring our sacred ecological relationships.
From the little I know, many of the origins of Christmas were appropriated from indigenous Nordic peoples. What is now the Christmas Tree, decorated and perched inside the living room, was once a recognition that in the coldest, darkest time of the year, the evergreen tree was still alive, outside thriving in green glory. This was a reminder that even when all seemed dreary and lost, with the world appearing dead, life was still flourishing. This, in itself, is a miracle.
In the largest understanding of cyclical seasons, even when death and suffering pervade, the return of vibrant life is assured. Today, the celebration of Solstice culminates on the darkest day of the year, a holy night, heralding in the return of the light and promise of coming warmth and abundance.
No matter what winter celebration one might mark during this time, very few of us actually suffer from the circumstance of being daily threatened by cold and hunger due to outside conditions. We must acknowledge that our society has epic issues with homelessness, imprisonment, and other displaced peoples including the many indigenous peoples who no longer have access to their sacred homelands. Yet most of us have the ability to return to shelter, turn up the heat, and obtain food from the grocery store. We are no longer directly dependent upon our local ecologies for sustenance, and hence, we forget our responsibilities to the earth around us.
For many of us who aim to be menders of our ecological homes, the question of how do we create traditions that honor the earth and one another arises. On one spectrum, greening Christmas, feels like a greenwashing of a massive consumer industry; and on another, attending to past and current indigenous traditions tumbles into cultural appropriation. Moreover, it is unsatisfying to practice sacredness that does not truly invoke a connection to our immediate place.
While I am not dependent on my landscape as the ancestors of my current bioregion once were, living in Colorado, I do notice how deeply I am affected by the commencement of winter with its darkness and cold. I love this time of year, because it tells me to rest and reflect–to take in the beauty of the short days, the brilliance of sunlight, the clean breath of the cold, night air. It is a time to sleep and enter the dream world, to allow exhaustion to take hold while I am blanketed by radiant stars. By doing so, the inner light will eventually return. It is a time of waiting and letting go, and as I begin to synchronize with the other beings of my homeland that are doing the same, I tune into a deeper wisdom.
This year I have been bedazzled by the holiday lights. In years past, I have mostly snubbed them–with my disdain for the required fossil fuel and plastic production to keep them alight. Yet this year, I have paid them more attention, perhaps because I am more often the passenger in the car or find more space for gazing as my partner and I bike around town at night.
There is something precious in the delicate care people take in creating something beautiful for their neighborhood. To celebrate the winter, mimicking icicles, fireflies, flames, and stars. It reminds us to see beauty in the dark of the night, in the cold, outside; to take a breath and be awed. It is also a reminder that in the darkest of spaces there is always light and in truth, the darkness herself is what is beautiful. She is the pause, the emptiness, as well as the conception. It is a space for miracles.
The darkest of nights is a holy night. It is a time to be devoted to stillness, the unknown, and the most unfathomable turn to creating anew. This year, and I hope for all of my years to come, I am devoted to being in respectful relationship with my immediate landscape–the community of beings I call home. With this darkness, I plant the seed for restoring relationships, for reciprocal kinship with all sentient beings.
Jeanine M. Canty, PhD, is a professor and chair of the Environmental Studies department at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. A lover of nature, justice, and contemplative practice, her teaching intersects issues of social and ecological justice connected to the process of worldview expansion and positive chang