By Paula White
December is a dark month for us Northern Hemisphere dwellers. Here are some practices to embrace the darkness and explore its mysteries.
Take a cue from nature and sleep more. In addition to true hibernators such as bears, groundhogs, and the California desert tortoise, many other animal species enter a temporary state of torpor to conserve energy during the winter months. Chickens lay fewer eggs in response to shorter days, a phenomenon I’ve observed first hand in my own flock–7 hens laid 170 eggs in May but only 29 in November. They also spend far more time “cooped up” as they naturally head to bed at sunset. Human sleep cycles, aka circadian rhythms, also respond to changes in daylight throughout the year. A sleep study showed that during a week of camping in the winter, human sleep times increased by over two hours per night, largely due to going to bed two and a half hours earlier. This is likely the result of there being no electrical lighting.
If you do go camping during the winter, you’ll have a lot of time for stargazing in great dark sky conditions. Just be sure to bring plenty of warm clothes! City dwellers can also observe the night sky via virtual telescopes on Saturday nights in December through the Chabot Space and Science Center. And on Monday December 21, the rare conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter is occurring. This once in a lifetime event can be observed shortly after sunset. Added bonus–December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. For optimal viewing, drive up to a high point such as Mt. Diablo to reduce light pollution. The two planets will be visible for about an hour after sunset, so plan to be in position to watch by sunset. A telescope helps but the conjunction of the two planets will be visible with the naked eye. The last time Saturn and Jupiter were this close together was in 1226!
If you prefer creating a homey warm atmosphere to weather the cold and dark winter months, you’re in good company. Though I love watching campfires, I’d just as soon light a candle at home in December rather than freeze to death outside. Prior to modern electric lighting, candles weren’t just for atmosphere–they were the primary light source. In the United States, candle wax sources included beeswax, animal fat (tallow), and bayberry. The bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), a flowering shrub with waxy berries was prized for candle making in colonial times because of its agreeable aroma. The process was quite time consuming, involving harvesting the berries, boiling them, and skimming the wax off the top. Five pounds of bayberries yielded one pound of wax. While everyday candles were made of tallow, and bayberry candles were saved for special occasions. It was customary to burn a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve to ensure wealth and prosperity in the coming year, in accordance with the saying “A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.”
In New Mexico and other parts of the American Southwest, people light up walkways at Christmas time by putting candles in paper bags weighted with sand. Known as “luminarias” or “farolitos”, the tradition has spread to Los Angeles and even Minnesota–my brother set out luminarias last year to guide party guests to the door. Lighting fires has been a feature of December holidays for millennia–the Pagans had yule logs, Indigenous peoples burn selectively for cultivation and ritual purpose, Europeans put candles on Christmas trees, Hanukkah commemorates a miracle of a menorah burning for 8 days instead of just one, and the seven candles of Kwanzaa symbolize African unity and the power of the sun. If your tradition includes burning, please be mindful of the high fire danger outside (yes, even in December) and enjoy the flames in a controlled indoor environment.