In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Christina Rossetti’s words, set to music by Gustave Holst remind us that much about winter is unforgiving. She is, of course, writing about the winter of northern Europe and North America, and not about the Christmas of the Middle East or Australia, but for us who live in these latitudes, winter is often bleak. I remember the first winter I spent in Wyoming, and how I looked out of my window at what seemed like a moonscape. It seemed that there was “snow on snow, snow on snow.” In pioneer days, people who died in the winter often remained a cold corpse in someone’s barn until the ground was thawed enough to dig a grave.
So when the first snow fell this November, I looked out the window with trepidation. It was still half-dark. The sun had not fully risen, and the buffalo in the pasture across from my house all wore thick white shawls. My heart sank a bit because we have had such a beautiful and warm fall, with the colors lasting weeks longer than usual, but at the same time I could see the beauty of the fresh snow, the way it caught in the branches of trees, the way it covered the lawns that had faded to brown.
Contrast is necessary for our spirits. We need the snow, and the ice. We need the diminishing light so that we can rejoice in its return. I know that in another six weeks, the sun will begin, once again, to rise earlier and set later, but right now, the late afternoon darkness makes me want to crawl into bed at six o’clock.
Long ago, I lived in California for two years, and for two Christmases, I experienced warm days when I wore shorts and worked outside. I didn’t live there long enough to learn to appreciate the subtleties of the weather, the almost imperceptible changes in the seasons. For me the jasmine was always blooming, and it rarely rained and it felt odd, as if the world I knew were slightly off balance.
We talk about life-cycles, birth, death, rebirth, leading again to death and rebirth. Sometimes where we live reinforces these cycles. We feel them in our bones as we turn up the heat, hunker down in from of a fire, but even when the climate doesn’t tune itself to our spiritual cycles, they are there. We must go through the dark times in order to see the light. Sometimes the light in our hearts returns slowly; sometimes it bursts out like a sudden sunrise, lighting our world with joy.
Recently I listened to a Ted Talk in which the woman spoke of whole-hearted people those people who rejoice in vulnerability, and who embrace the world in which they find themselves. Who throw themselves into whatever situation arises. Whole-hearted implies generosity of spirit, and implies a person who is alive to the world. The last stanza of the Rossetti poem goes like this:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
I need to remember to give my heart over to the seasons and cycles of my life. I need to rejoice in the snow as much as in the fall sunshine, or the summer’s warmth, to feel within me the recurring life, death and rebirth that all our human lives entail.