In the northern hemisphere, the darkness of winter is a natural phenomenon, but it arrives with an unnatural jolt. For most of the country, Daylight Saving Time ends at precisely 2 o’clock in the morning on Sunday, November 6. That night, the seasons transition as abruptly as a teenaged driver shifting gears, and we fall back one hour into darkness.
Our family dinner that first evening always feels otherworldly. The tired faces of my children leave ghostly reflections in the dark glass of the back door near our kitchen table. And every year, the night’s meal cools while I fumble in the cupboard for a candle.
On the first dark night of the year, the contrast between the inky blackness outside and the electric glare inside feels like a chasm into which we might fall. So we turn to candlelight as our bridge. Some years I remember to buy honey-scented tapers from the beekeeper at the last farmer’s market of October. This year, I found only two meager inches of a dusty and drip-splattered candle. Yet once lit, it burned fiercely at the center of our scarred wooden table, its tiny flame feeling as necessary and vital as the mythic flame of Prometheus.
The trees and birds have no need for signs and no need to count the years. But we do. The lights are for us.
Strangely, we seem to have more time now as the days grow shorter. Instead of running outside as soon as they’ve taken that one obligatory bite of green vegetables, my children linger at the table. There is time to talk and time to read one more chapter of The Hobbit by the flickering warmth of the kitchen woodstove. There is even time enough for early bedtimes and time for the kind of sleep that is edged, as it is edged only in winter, with hibernation.
Perhaps it was the tale of Bilbo hunting for his supper that jogged my memory, perhaps it was the string of lights that twinkled above the window, but one night during Christmas break I asked my two sons if I had ever told them the story of how, when I was a little girl, I went hunting for wild turkeys.
They gasped. “Our mother?” their wide eyes seemed to ask. “Our mother who gave a not-up-for-discussion no when asked if we could have a BB gun?”
“You went turkey hunting?” my older son asked.
“I did,” I answered.
“Who took you?” my younger son wondered.
“I went turkey hunting with my friend Kim from school,” I said. “I drove with her family to her grandmother’s farm. This was in Texas. They call it the Hill Country.”
“What happened?” they asked in one voice.
“Well,” I began. “When you hunt for wild turkeys, you must wake up early, while it is still dark. I didn’t want to wake up early. I didn’t want to go hunting at all, but I was too shy to say so. I wanted only to stay in the warm bed until sunup and breakfast.”
“Did you shoot a turkey?”
“Did your friend?”
“I don’t remember. I suppose she must have, but I don’t remember that part at all. I do remember how cold it was when I first stepped outside. I remember seeing so many stars above my head they looked like spilled milk. It was the first time I understood why we call our galaxy the Milky Way. I had never seen stars like that. I have never seen so many stars since.”
We have lost touch with the gifts God placed with such care in the night sky.
My boys were quiet. I hoped they were imagining the stars and not the turkeys who may or may not have lived to see another day. In the stillness of that moment, it seemed as if I could again feel my childish anxiety. If only I had known then that the early morning turkey hunt I so dreaded would fade away, leaving in my memory only the great gift of those stars. I knew I would never say yes to the BB gun, but I suddenly wanted to give my boys a gift like the one I had received all those years before.
In the first chapter of Genesis, creation begins with the separation of light and dark, day and night. Later, after the trees but before the birds, God creates lights, a greater and a lesser, like lanterns in the sky. This is the first hint in the creation song of our own imminent arrival. The sun, moon, and stars, God says, are “for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (Gen. 1:14). The trees and birds have no need for signs and no need to count the years. But we do. The lights are for us.
Yet we have lost touch with the gifts God placed with such care in the night sky. Our lives are ruled by clock and calendar. The little lights disappear when we push the darkness back with our floodlights and our flickering screens.
I had not thought sunset in the middle of the afternoon to be a gift. Now, I saw that it was. I was sure I could never rouse my boys early to venture out into a cold morning (at least without the promise of a turkey hunt), but I could suggest that we leave the dinner dishes and go for a walk in the crisp December air.
We have lost touch with the gifts God placed with such care in the night sky. Our lives are ruled by clock and calendar.
Our Pennsylvania home is far less isolated than that Texas Hill Country farm, but as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we turned off our flashlights and raised our eyes.
And we began to count.
We counted stars in the sky until it became impossible. We counted the electric candles glowing in each of our front windows. We noted the silver sliver of moon just above the tallest maple. We debated whether that moon cast enough light to cause the snow to shine or was the snow, somehow, lit from within? I taught my sons a new word: luminous.
The overflowing light of the stars. The concentrated flame of a candle stub. A puddle of moonlight on the snow, and the twinkling silhouette of a Christmas tree in the window. These are some of the little lights that belong to this season of darkness, and they are good. Why greet with anxiety or fear the one thing that makes them possible? Thank you, Father of lights, for darkness.