Out of the Darkness

An Alaskan Holiday



It’s four days until winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. The sun will rise at 10:04 a.m. and set at 4:03 p.m. At best, that’s six hours of daylight, but the light will be thin, the shadows long even at noon, if the sun makes it through another cloudy front spilling down the mountains across the bay.

We cut a Christmas tree last week, another one, I’ll admit, poached from private land nearby that is owned by people who live someplace far away. It’s just a spindly spruce, a Charlie Brown Christmas tree my husband has been calling it. It was growing at the edge of a clump of larger trees, begging, we told ourselves, to be thinned.

The week before we cut the tree, a rabid hunger for light took over me. Even with every switch flicked on, the house was dim. So as my husband and I dragged the tree in through the front door, wearing leather gloves to protect our hands from the sharp needles, this strange tradition of bringing a cumbersome, shedding plant into the house, and decorating it with lights and shiny things that reflect those lights, suddenly felt like a means of survival. At least it seemed like a way of creating a bright distraction from the dark feelings that creep in at this time of year.

I grew up half-and-half, as my sister and I described it. Half Jewish, half Christian. This meant we attended temple on the High Holy Days, we lit up to five different menorahs at Hannukah—the main one and the arts-and-crafts ones my sister and brothers and I made at various programs at the local JCC. It also meant we went to church on Christmas, left cookies and notes for Santa long after we stopped believing, and loved decorating our Christmas tree.

Our holidays when I was a kid had little to do with religion or an idea of a god. They were a set of rituals we practiced year in year out—the mysterious Hebrew syllables we chanted, the songs we sang, the candles we lit, the glitter-covered Styrofoam bells we had made in nursery school out of old egg cartons that we put up on the tree—these were things we anticipated each December. Those things and, of course, two weeks off from school.

Usually my husband, kids, and I fly to the East Coast to be with our families over the holidays. But this year, we’re staying put. So celebrating the holidays here with our children is new. What will be our annual traditions? What will our girls come to anticipate? Mostly, in this dark place, the holidays feel like a crucial way to bring light into our lives, and to provide an excuse to get together with friends just about every night of the week.

Next week, I’ve organized a kid-friendly holiday sing-along at the biggest bar in town—hopefully the manager can arrange for a Santa to walk through. We’ll be doing a progressive neighborhood dinner, starting with drinks and appetizers at our house. Then a friend will play his accordion while we traipse in the dark—bedecked with lanterns and headlamps—to the next house for another round and course. We’ll be sledding and skiing in the middle of the day when the kids are off from school. I’ll cook the moose rib roast our neighbor gave us in the fall, as well as Yorkshire pudding—the dish my English mother always makes at Christmas, the batter puffing into contours resembling that region’s famous hills. We’ll decorate cookies with friends. Maybe I’ll even get inspired to make a real gingerbread house with my girls like the kind my sister and I used to make, complete with melted Life Saver stained glass windows.

What we’re really celebrating is the passing of the darkest day of the year. Soon, the days will be getting longer again. The light will be coming back. This, alone, is cause for much joy.

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Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer. The author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, she also wrote the Northern Lights blog for our website.


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