This is an odd time of year if you are living in a country that’s in the north of the northern hemisphere. It’s dark. It’s dark when I get up in the morning. It’s dark when I stop work. The days are short and the nights long, cold and damp. The 16th-century poet John Donne got it right in his Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, when he described this season as “the year’s midnight”: “The sun is spent, and now his flasks/ Send forth light squibs, no constant rays.” The further north you live the more extreme it is – in Iceland a weak light may come around 11 am and be gone by 4 pm. In Lapland, there really isn’t much light at all. This sense of the enveloping power of darkness has been more acute in this year of Covid. It has added extra social limitations to these dark months, as well as a layer of uncertainty as to how long those limitations may last.
Light is central to many festivals all over the world at this time of year
Little wonder that sales of Christmas lights have apparently tripled and festive displays went up earlier than ever – especially outside. The streets are festooned with twinkling tiny bulbs and illuminated sleighs, even on the houses of those who might previously have shunned such things. It’s as though people are seeking to lift all our spirits and connect with each other when we need to most. In times of darkness, we seek the light.
Humans have evolved to love light. It is a fundamental need, beyond just helping us to see. It affects our mood, our emotions, and our sense of wellbeing. Without enough of it we can suffer both physically and mentally.
Those who live in northern countries have long known this, of course, and had to learn ways to cope with the combination of darkness and uncertainty at this time of year. Central to their lives is the importance of seizing the moment. Perhaps it’s time that we in Britain embraced some of those traditions and practices to get through this time of waiting. And with the shortest day, the winter solstice, upon us tomorrow, never has it been more important to seek to defy the darkness.
Light is central to many festivals all over the world at this time of year. The Jewish celebration of Chanukkah with its ritual lighting of the menorah candlestick, Diwali, Karthika Deepam, the Chinese New Year, and St Lucy’s Day in Scandinavia.
We have already started to pay attention to domestic Scandinavian traditions. Danish “hygge” involves accepting the cold outside and snuggling down in the cozy warmth and light inside – with Scandi delights such as cinnamon buns, blankets, and warm drinks. It’s a celebration of shutting out the world, solitude, quietude, and contemplation – and one way of getting the most out of the dark months of winter. On the other hand, the Norwegian concept of “koselig” means accepting the outside; lighting fires and creating warmth in the cold winter night, wrapped up in your warmest togs and making the most of nature. Both approaches have something to tell us about how to survive these dark days.
What such traditions have in common is a human yearning for the comfort of light – whether indoors or out. But by placing light in a contrast with the darkness, they also highlight the special nature of darkness itself. Because there is magic to be found at this time of year.
As I write this the sky is turning from black to a rich blue, as the sun edges up and the moon hangs bright in the sky over my suburban garden. On other days, the air changes colour in an almost luminous way. Watery sunshine, when the sun is occasionally allowed through the clouds, is itself a thing of beauty – those “squibs” of light offering no warmth, but comfort and hope. And then there are the birds, singing joyously at the first weak light. It seems to say “Here’s the light, make the most of it… we are!”
It is these moments that have inspired artists of all kinds to respond to the darkness and offer us another way of lightening up. Sunrises and the intensity of light on nature have long captivated painters, writers and composers – Sibelius and Baltic musicians such as Rautavaara; John Taverner, whose reflections on light produced some startlingly beautiful meditations on mortality, and Carl Nielsen’s joyous Helios Overture, which perfectly suggests the rising of the sun in all its glory.
It’s why, on Radio 3, I launched a season to celebrate the power of light in the darkness; to inspire appreciation and hope in us all. The Light in the Darkness theme weaves through the schedule as an antidote to the long nights and downcast mood we have all succumbed to.
There are shimmering choral works, orchestral pieces, and explorations of candlelight and fire. There are “sound walks” with Horatio Clare, and on Boxing Day we will visit the northern lights as Alaskan composer Matthew Burtner tries to capture their strange beauty in sound.
The greatest solace comes from nature itself, which in these dark times allows us unexpected joys. The northern lights are perhaps the greatest symbol of that. I saw them unexpectedly once in the Yukon in northern Canada and their strange, dancing, living light is a natural wonder in the depths of a long, cold winter.
Now we are at the darkest point of a dark year, and the sense that we want light and dawn to come is more acute than ever.
Maybe this is the time to think of the good things that can come in this dark time, to draw on old approaches, and to look at how we can celebrate the things that are there for us to appreciate: nature, art, staying warm where we can and rediscovering the chilly joy of the outdoors in winter.
So let’s rediscover the idea that light in the darkness is a powerful thing. And embrace it safe in the knowledge that there will be a dawn, and a sunrise, once more.
The Light in the Darkness season continues across all BBC Radio 3 programming until Dec 27