Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere—and therefore the longest and darkest night.
I’m thinking about light. Not the demure natural light of the low sun on this day, but the artificial light we use to beat back the darkness.
In my safe, residential neighborhood of mostly single-family houses, I am surrounded by light on all sides. The neighboring houses all have bright exterior lights that glow all night long. I can barely look out a window without feeling like a flashlight is shining in my face. I have to make sure my bedroom curtains are closed just so to prevent a light on the garage behind us from keeping me awake.
There are so many residential lights that if I want to get a decent look at the stars I have to walk across the road and over to the ravine where it’s darker and I can get a better visual path into the night sky.
I’m not sure of the purpose of this excessive illumination. Safety? Break-ins, especially at night when residents are home, are fortunately not a thing in my neighborhood. Fear of the dark? Say it isn’t so. Darkness, be my friend.
At my house, we turn on our exterior lights only if one of us is out that night or we’re expecting someone over. Last person to bed turns them off.
We’re also good at reminding each other about turning off lights when leaving a room. We have a saying from Harriet’s side of the family that we utter when we walk into a room with too many lights on: “It’s lit up like Luna Park in here!” Luna Park is an amusement park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, known for its festive lights.
At this time of year, holiday lights make the neighborhood even brighter. Houses are wrapped in bright white bulbs. Strings of colored lights outline doorways. Illuminated, inflated snowmen and reindeer pose in front yards. Some neighbors have displays of moving lights dancing across the front of their houses, disco-like.
I admit we have a single string of deep blue lights running along the roof line. “Nondenominational winter lights,” I call them. But then I read in an environmental newsletter I subscribe to how much energy we use to illuminate the holiday season. I felt immediately guilty. It’s a staggering amount of unnecessary power use. Why can’t I just enjoy the lights without feeling like a hypocrite? I haven’t turned mine off, but I probably won’t replace them once they break—and all these light strands made with plastic and lead and cheap wiring break soon enough and get tossed into the landfill.
Instead of bemoaning the shortest day of the year and turning on every light within reach, I will be celebrating the darkness. I will step outside and praise in the night. Without darkness, we wouldn’t know light, and so today I honor the dark.
In the time it’s taken me to write this piece, the sun has set and I am cast in shadows, the only glow coming from my computer screen. And then the outside begins to glow. The lights are switching on: the safety lights, the holiday lights, the streetlights. I’ll find a dark spot to be alone for a moment.
Starting tomorrow the days will be getting longer.