It’s the darkest night of the year. It’s also cold outside. The harvest is well and truly over and in times of old, you were living off of whatever you were able to store up in your larders and your root cellars. You are huddled in your home, hoping that you have laid in enough wood to keep the fire stoked so that you can stay warm.
On the night of the Solstice, it’s far enough into the winter that there’s no turning back now. If you haven’t included it in your preparations, you probably won’t have time to get it now. What you have is what you have, and if it’s not enough, you’re in trouble. But you’re also not close enough to the spring to know if you’re going to make it. Will it be a long winter or a short one? Will there be many storms or will the weather stay mild? You don’t have any real idea. The dark and the cold might outlast you yet, even with good preparation.
This knife edge is the place you are at on the eve of the Solstice, the holiday that pagans call Yule. So why are we celebrating in such a precarious time? It seems strange.
And yet, it’s a very human thing to do. It’s when we’re unsure of the future that we turn to the people around us and seek connection. We remind ourselves that we are not alone, that when things are rough, we can get through things with the help and love of the people around us. Community is not just about feeling good. It is necessary to our society. It is necessary to every one of us. Without community, we are exposed, and at risk of perishing.
In ages past, community was an inherent part of your existence. You were born into a community, and had a role in that community that was dictated by your status — what class your family was, what gender you were, what locality you were in. Your birth established you as part of a community, and set your role in it. People rarely ever questioned their role in the community, or rebelled against it, because to be left without community was effectively a death sentence. People who did not have other people, outsiders and outcasts, usually ended up out in the cold, without food, without shelter.
Our modern world offers people all kinds of opportunities to define ourselves beyond the communities we were born into. We are no longer forced to accept the constrictions of our birth as the be all and end all of who we are or can be. People do not have to stay in the communities they were born into out of necessity. People may now choose their communities. Sometimes, in the Internet age, your community might be remote from you. People have never had such freedom to authentically define themselves as they do today. They may not always avail themselves of it, but community today is a choice.
But people have also never been lonelier than they are today. People are so caught up in the life that happens on a tiny screen, they don’t forge close connections with the people that are to the right and to the left of them. People are finding it harder and harder to make long lasting connections — whether friendships or romance. You can blame dating apps, cellphones, selfishness, politics, anything you want. But the end result is the same. People more than ever find themselves depressed, feeling isolated, disconnected from other people. And at this time of year, it can be at its worst.*
I’m not a fan of nostalgia. Most memories of bygone eras are romanticized to the point of being maudlin fantasies that bear little resemblance to the truth, which was always a little less glamorous and a little more difficult than we want to admit. So when I think about rebuilding a sense of community, I worry about people mistaking a desire to reacquire a capability for a desire to return to “good old days” that were not as good as they seemed. We need more community in our lives, but we need that community to be empowering and liberating, not restrictive or hidebound.
When I talk about Yule as a celebration of community, what I mean is that it is the understanding that nobody does it alone. Yule comes at the moment in the cycle of seasons where we are most at risk from the elements, and with the fewest available resources. If we are to survive, it will be because of what we have created over the rest of the year, what we bring with us into the season. That includes the support of our community. Here on the darkest night of the year, reach out. Acknowledge the presence and necessity of your community, whoever it is, whether family or friends or a combination of both. Revel in the warmth of a hearth, the warmth of the love around you. Show gratitude for it, even if you’re not sure it’s enough. Share what you have with those you love and those who need.
Because the only way we get through this life is together.
Blessed Yule, y’all.
* Sometimes that feeling of loneliness is more than a feeling, but something that needs real attention. If you are suffering from depression or are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please know that there is help. If you have a friend or a medical professional you trust, reach out. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1–800–273–8255 and is available 24 hours a day every day with help. You matter. You are not alone.