Here in Ireland, the daylight is brief and getting briefer by the day. Yes, the dark is rising. We are under the spell of a cold snap…very cold, even for this time of year. I love the cold dark days and would be venturing out more, if it wasn’t for this stupid virus (no, not that one) I’ve picked up. But it gives a strong, genuine feeling of the approach of the shortest day; the Winter Solstice. And if you stop and look, you will be taken by a strange, mystical sense of the rhythm of the natural world and those things we can do nothing about but watch and wait. At this time of year, I always turned to books for some solace (?), or perhaps some kind of explanation… Here are a few of my favourites that I am and will be reading for the next couple of weeks. (Spoiler alert: none of these are brand-new, shiny books…you should be able to find them with ease.)
Every year at this time, like many other bookish folk, I pull out this absolutely sterling contemporary classic, which offers the anticipation of the run-up to Christmas, the quiet and cold of snow and the reminder that once, before the tinsel and carols, there was another celebration…one steeped in myth and darkness of midwinter. The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper…oh, my! What a story! Here we meet 11-year-old Will who, in the busy-ness of Christmastime in the Stanton household, awakes on Midwinters’ Day (his birthday) to a different world – silent, covered in snow and ancient forest, a world of another time. A world where evil lurks. It seems Will is not the ordinary boy he always thought he was. Will is the last of the Old Ones, and has the power to vanquish the evil magic of the Dark. The Dark is rising and Will must rise to meet it. Filled with ancient mystical beliefs and a wild, unbridled magic…this book is now and always has been simply astounding. (There are numerous editions out there, so take your choice.)
A couple of picture books to bring you through the darkest days of Midwinter and into the light…over the past couple of years, I have felt truly blessed by these two. They are both intriguing, warming and invite us to see the gentle mystery of the natural world at this time. The LightBringers by Karin Celestine is a beautiful little book. “When light recedes from the land and autumn’s fruitfulness is replaced by winter’s cold, bleak stillness, deep within the cracks and crevices where the small creatures live, the light lives on, protected and cherished. And when the Hare calls, those that keep it know how to respond.” And we journey with the LightBringers as they cross through the dark to offer hope and the assurance that the light will return. An interesting section on Midwinter folk practices, as well! (Graffeg Ltd; https://graffeg.com/products/the-lightbringers)
And a glorious picture book that displays the shortest day in all its’ glory across time; The Shortest Day by (the aforementioned) Susan Cooper, illustrated by Carson Ellis. “So the shortest day came, and the year died…” Coopers’ beloved poem is brought to life by the beautiful, evocative illustrations in a book that is a seasonal treasure. (And one I think everyone should have!) Spanning centuries of human life, it embraces the magic behind the returning of the light, the yearning for traditions that connect us with generations that have gone before—and the hope for peace that we carry into the future. (Walker Books: https://www.walker.co.uk/The-Shortest-Day-9781406394191.aspx)
In 2020, this one made my must-read Midwinter list immediately; The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery. A middle-grade novel, steeped in myth, legend and magic, not only is it set in the dark of the year, but it is set in Englands’ “darkest hour”…during the Blitz in WW2. Expecting to spend Christmas in their old cottage with her sister, Col is left disappointed when she fails to arrive. But when his childhood imaginary friends come to life, he discovers a world where myths and legends are real. Accompanied by these guardians, Col must travel to Blitz-bombed-London to save his sister. There are darker forces at work, even than the Nazi bombings. Soon Col is pursued by the terrifying Midwinter King, who is determined to bring an eternal darkness down over everything. An amazing, magical, heartfelt adventure that you will never forget. (Walker Books: https://www.walker.co.uk/The-Midnight-Guardians-9781406391183.aspx)
If you want to know more about the Winter Solstice and Midwinter celebrations throughout time, I came across this little gem only recently and think that it may just do the trick. The Shortest Day: A Little Book of the Winter Solstice by Karen Cater (Hedingham Fair, 2014: ISBN 9780955647574) No, this isn’t a kids book. What it is is a brief, well-written glimpse across time that tracks the traditional (pagan, if you like) roots of the festive Midwinter season and how it became what we know it to be today. Susinct explanations of the symbolism embedded in seasonal customs give us a clear understanding of how and why we celebrate this time of year.
I hope that gives you some ideas for reading “through the dark” and on to the shortest day. It is a moving, beautiful time, one to reflect and enjoy. And of course, to remember that soon, the light will be growing again. It’s the seasonal cycle…celebrate it!