“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timely exhortation for presence over productivity. It could be an elemental function of our situation that the extra scarce one thing is, the extra treasured it turns into. Simply as the shortness of life calls, in that Seneca way, for filling annually with breadths of expertise, so the shortness of the day requires the fulness of every hour, every second. No day concentrates and consecrates its elementary particles of time extra powerfully than the shortest day of the yr. With our consciousness pointed to its brevity by historic rites and trendy calendars alike, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” one thing rapturous occurs — a sort of portal into heightened presence opens up as each minute ticks with a supra-consciousness of its passage, pulsates with an additional fulness of being, whereas at the identical time attuning us to the cyclical seasonality of time, reminding us of the cycles of life and dying.
That’s what author Susan Cooper and artist Carson Ellis rejoice in The Shortest Day (public library) — an illustrated resurrection of Cooper’s 1974 poem by the identical title, initially composed for John Langstaff’s beloved Christmas Revel exhibits, which fuse medieval and trendy music in grassroots theatrical productions throughout native communities.
Cooper’s buoyant verses and Ellis’s soulful, mirthful illustrations convey to life, throughout time and house and cultures and civilizations, the ardor with which our ancestors have welcomed the winter solstice since lengthy earlier than the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the word orbit in an period when few dared consider that the Earth spins on its axis whereas revolving round the Solar. (It’s a operate of the tilt of Earth’s axis and the elliptical form of its orbit — one other radical contribution of Kepler’s, who debunked the millennia-old dogma of excellent round movement — that when our planet’s axial tilt leans one pole as distant as it could go from our star, we’re granted the shortest attainable day and the longest attainable evening of the yr.)
So the shortest day got here, and the yr died,
And in every single place down the centuries of the snow-white world
Got here folks singing, dancing,
To drive the darkish away.
They lighted candles in the winter bushes;
They hung their properties with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all evening lengthy
To maintain the yr alive.
In an afterword reflecting on the common human impulse to rejoice gentle — its departure and its return — Cooper writes:
For those who reside on a planet that circles a solar, your time is ruled by the patters of gentle and darkness, summer time and winter, heat and chilly. And, of course, life and dying. As soon as our forebears discovered to farm, they planted and harvested at the equinoxes, however it was the solstices that caught their consideration. The extremes. They watched their days shrink from the brilliant abundance of excessive summer time to the bleak, darkish chilly of winter, and they invented rituals to be certain that the gentle would come again once more: to convey the new day, the new yr, the rebirth of life.
The rebirth rituals have grow to be traditions we nonetheless rejoice, whether or not or not we bear in mind the place they got here from. Some of them are so outdated that solely their monuments stay. On the morning of the winter solstice at the nice earthwork Newgrange, in County Meath, Eire, the day’s first beam of daylight shines in by way of a passage that Neolithic folks constructed there 5 thousand years in the past to catch it, and for seventeen minutes, a darkish room deep inside is crammed with the sunshine of the shortest day.
Complement The Shortest Day with the nice nature author Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely ode to the leap day, then revisit Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditations on the cycle of life and the many meanings of home.
Poem textual content © Susan Cooper; illustrations © Carson Ellis, courtesy of Candlewick Press; images by Maria Popova