Caught by the River

Dispatches from Darkness and Light

21st December 2018

Writing on the Winter Solstice, Anita Sethi ponders the stigmatisation of darkness

Today is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, and the shortest and darkest day, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the sun. It is the beginning of astronomical Winter: astronomical rather than meteorological seasons being determined by the Earth’s orbit around the sun. I’ve always found the Solstice a powerful point in the year. I love darkness. After all, life develops in darkness, from bulbs beneath the black soil to babies in the womb. Yet culture has come to fear, stigmatise and demonise darkness. We shy away from fully exploring darkness but in doing so we miss the ways it can be illuminating.

Since we have passed Daylight Saving Time, I’ve been both night-walking, and waking early to walk through the darkness. At first I’m scared at the thought of stepping into the dark, but I confront that primal fear, and soon after my first footstep outside, the wind on my skin wakes me and my fear melts away. I’m almost camouflaged by the night-time, with my black hair and dark skin – and over the years the metaphor of darkness has taken on added resonance for me. For centuries, writers have been equating “dark” with bad and “light” with good. As a child ploughing my way through the books in my local library it struck me that the “baddies” had associations with darkness and the “goodies” with fairness, lightness, whiteness. In the hands of predominantly white writers, darkness has come to embody deepest fears.

Yet darkness needn’t always be something to fear – indeed, it can be relished. The Winter Solstice is an excellent day to embrace the darkness.  It’s also a pertinent time to revisit representations of darkness in literature and culture. ‘We grow accustomed to the Dark / When Light is put away’, writes Emily Dickinson, a great poet of darkness and light. ‘Either the Darkness alters — / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight’.  I love letting my sight adjust to the night, gaining an owl-like vision to better perceive what is in the dark, and coming to know that which loves to lurk in it. It is not only gremlins, witches and monsters that thrive in darkness – much that is beautiful comes alive and alight, from foxes in the heart of the city to the magnificence of the moon.

The Winter Solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years, including the annual event at Stonehenge where people congregate to watch the sunrise on the shortest day of the year.  The term ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’, as it seems to do at the Tropic of Capricorn before reversing its direction as it reaches its southernmost position as seen from the Earth. It’s a perfect time for stillness in life, too, a certain inner stillness, for reflection and recharging the batteries, for quiet contemplation.  I paradoxically gain that stillness when I’m in motion, walking through the dark. If you don’t feel like stepping outside this Solstice, I’d recommend curling up by candlelight and devouring some Winter Solstice-themed poems, including a powerful one from Margaret Atwood, as anthologised in her collection Eating Fire, in which ‘the still point / of the sun’ is so beautifully captured:

This is the solstice, the still point
of the sun, its cusp and midnight,
the year’s threshold
and unlocking, where the past
lets go of and becomes the future;
the place of caught breath, the door
of a vanished house left ajar…

Other poems include the haunting, anonymously written Winter Solstice (my guess is that this is by a talented female poet: ‘For most of history, anonymous was a woman’, wrote Virginia Woolf).

Some of the most memorable words about the Winter come from Albert Camus, who wrote: ‘In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.’  The best writers well capture that darkness and light aren’t binaries but rather work best when blended together, when they are both valued and enjoyed.

This Winter Solstice I’m also accompanied by a glorious treasure trove of music about the darkness and the night – from Prince’s ‘Moonbeam Levels’ to ‘You Want it Darker’ by Leonard Cohen – which I’ve compiled into a playlist. You can delve into it here.

I think of creatures who have burrowed their way through the earth at this time of the year, hibernating in darkness, wrapping themselves within it alongside the bulbs slowly growing in the black soil like secrets waiting to be told. As much as I love darkness, I feel a surge of joy too, at the thought of all that life down there waiting to spring forth, a surge of hope that the world is inching, slowly, back towards the light.


Anita Sethi is a writer and journalist. She is contributor and co-editor of the anthology ‘Solstice Shorts’ and is published in ‘Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons’, edited by Melissa Harrison.  She has contributions in the forthcoming books ‘Common People’ and ‘Women on Nature’. Visit her website here/follow her on Twitter here.