Mysterious Winter

“Mysterious Winter”  a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton, December 23, 2018

When I was young, my second storey bedroom faced our four lane avenue in the west end of Montreal.  It wasn’t an overly busy street, but there was traffic to and from the nearby college.  I recall looking out my bay window on most nights of the year, a kind of bedtime ritual.  Sometimes it was a quick look, other times I would gaze at the largely unchanging streetscape for a long time.  In spring and summer I would watch the moon and the  rainstorms, in fall, I would follow the leaves dancing in the wind.  It was always a most special when the early snows of winter would fall with thick fat flakes turning the the lawns and the dark pavement white.  There was something magical in that nighttime brightening.

What I remember most was how quiet it all got.  On summer nights I could hear the rail yards two miles distant and the busy main avenue a long block away.  But all that disappeared when the snow fell.  The world became oh so quiet, quiet enough to hear the muffled crunching footsteps of the occasional passerby.  I suppose that’s the first wintry mystery I recall.  Oh, the how and why of the bright silence was easy to comprehend, but the softening of the sound still seemed magical, as if we had entered a new time and space, a new existence in the world.  It was a white world illuminated by streetlights or Christmas lights in the long night of dark.  

Winter time always felt different, to me, like a very special season.  It wasn’t the Christmas holiday as much as it was the slowing down, the quieting, the changing of clothes and routines.  Rushing gets harder when you have to bundle up and shovel the snow first.  Rushing gets harder when you have to walk or drive more carefully.  We tend to wonder just a bit more if this journey is actually necessary, or if that errand has to be completed this very minute.   Things… just… slowed… down.  The early descending dark seems to send a message that it is time to think differently, time to look inside.

David Horst’s reading “The Last Leaf” has that introspective feel.  In the late Autumn he found a single leaf that had resisted the drying the dropping, the Fall winds and stubbornly clung on.  All of a sudden, having been part of a mass of green, it became an individual, a survivor.  David noticed it and found time to contemplate this last bit of living in the season of dying. It’s emotionally interesting, a cheering of hardiness, tinged with a sadness for the inevitable, a foreknowledge that this leaf, and each of us, will give up life sooner or later.   

Winter has that kind of feel for me.  It is a time to notice things, to see them differently: a small evergreen bush that endures despite its snowy blanket, the three foot icicle hanging from the leaky gutter.  It is a liminal season, a time between dying and rebirth, a slowing time, a time to see the odd things and pause in the cold to appreciate them.

Winter is a season that invites us to contemplation and self-examination.  Religion has recognized that. Christian  Advent, for example, was devised to encourage a preparation of the soul.  It is a time to think what we might change in order to become better people.  We see that reflected in the more secular idea of New Year’s resolutions and the Solstice celebrations acknowledging that the wheel of the year is turning and we are starting again.  We even see it in the encouragement of childish best behaviour in order to stay on Santa’s nice list.

But there is a problem with all of this natural urge to slow down and go to ground.  Despite living in the winter wonderland of Canada, our culture is not geared for this winter slowdown.  Media and merchants alike live in a sunny culture of fast and frequent.  They want us to go from high to high.  There is no room for a slowing down, for reflection.  Christmas, once a quiet and unremarkable religious festival, has become the largest shopping event of the year, the make or break time for many retailers.  The pressure is not to do the less that winter suggests, but to do more, with parties and concerts and family gatherings and, yes, even church services.

No wonder so many of us get over stressed during this season…even when we are self-confessed Christmas junkies (like me).  Our minds are being fired to think one way, while our bodies are saying, “Enough already!  Take a break, Dude!”

Maybe that’s why so many people crash in the Christmas rush or get sick right after the holidays.  The bustle is a little unnatural and runs against our biological instincts.  Maybe we are supposed to be hibernating along with the ground mammals, doing far less instead of far more.

Is anyone else like me…four o’clock rolls around and the world grows dark and I just want a nap.  I don’t want to bake cookies that I crave or make dinner for my family.  I just want to go into my cave for awhile.

Consider this article from Huffington Post:

“It’s real,” Kathryn A. Roecklein, an associate professor in the department of psychology at University of Pittsburgh…

Seasonal mood shifts often include less energy, feeling less social, losing interest in favorite activities, having cravings for carbs and changes in sleep ― either having trouble sleeping or wanting to sleep more than usual.

Scientists know there are a lot of biological and physiological reasons our moods tend to change with the season, Roecklein said. But a big factor in those seasonal mood swings is light.

“The scientific evidence says that length of day, which is shorter in the winter and longest in the summer, is the main seasonal variable that affects mood,” she said.

And since those sunsets are well on their way to getting earlier and earlier as soon as fall begins, it’s not unusual if you start to feel those mood shifts around the same time.

It’s your body’s circadian clock that monitors changes in day length, Roecklein explained. The circadian clock is the body’s internal time-keeper; it tells us when to feel sleepy and when to wake up, and plays a big role in a lot of other systems in our body, like hormone release, temperature regulation, metabolism and mood. 

So when there’s less light during the day, some of those processes affected by the circadian clock, including ones that influence our mood, get disrupted.

So we know this, right?  This is nothing new to you.  It’s science and it’s been around for a long time, backed up with the anecdotal evidence of so many of us who hear it and simply nod our heads in familiar recognition. 

And yet we have a culture that demands more energy, just when we should be letting go.  I think that’s one reason why we will be marking Blue Christmas this evening.  It’s our annual service for people who need time away from the holidays.  Sometimes it’s because their personal history means Christmas has never been a happy time, sometimes indeed it has been frightening.  For others, it’s because a large loss or stress in their lives gets in the way.  It’s too hard to enjoy the holidays when we feel the keenness of loss.  But I want to add in that the loss of light asks something different from us, something that doesn’t really fit with the jolly holiday spirit.  That can make the season stressful too.

Of course this go-go energy is new, part of the commercialization of Christmas that’s really only ramped up in the last 75 years.  There was a time in this land, in some particular cultures, where the natural rhythms of the changing seasons were recognized and honoured in a very special way.

A few decades ago I moved to Vancouver.  I was fascinated by the rich heritage of the coastal first nations.  I spent a little time studying them and discovered a delicious fact.  During the summer cycle the people lived in normal family settings in their longhouses.  They hunted, and fished and gathered and prepared their foods for the winter.  

But when winter came, everything shifted, very literally.  Individuals would  leave their family clans for several months. Villages would reconfigure into spirit clans.  People would move into different houses and spend the season with their spirit brothers and sisters of the Bears, or Eagles, or Salmon clans guided by their spirit animals.  It was a deeply religious and sacred time.  In their winter homes they worked on learning the sacred stories and dances particular to their clan.  They crafted and carved the masks and clothing, the drums and rattles they would need for their ceremonies.  Winter was the most sacred time of the year when clans would sing those sacred and closely guarded songs, offer these traditional dances as gifts to the other clans, only to receive their dances, songs and stories in return.

I’m not advocating such a dramatic shift in culture, though it might be a way to avert some of the family fights over the Christmas table.  Instead I want to invite you to listen, just a little, to the still, small voice within that’s calling you to slow down a little.  Make some space for yourself.  Say no to a few things that feel like they belong more on the ‘have to do’ list than on the ‘want to do’ list.

Just think, pampering yourself with a nice long bath, or a book by the fire, or an extra hour of sleep is really a way of honouring the biological demands of your circadian clock.  The rebirth of Spring will come soon enough, we received the promise of the returning light with the Solstice yesterday.  But for now, it’s only a promise.  Now is the resting time, the time for caring for your own soul and the souls of those around you.  Give yourself a little bit of you this holiday season.  It’s the natural thing to do.