Preparing the Way Through the Longest Night of the Year

Rachel WatsonBlog, Depression

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, these are cold and dark days. Today—December 21—is the darkest of them all. 

I have a sort of desperate energy as I search for little glimpses of light wherever I can find them, watching out my window for pockets of sun between the clouds. But by 4:00pm, I’m mid-work project and the sun has already slipped out of my grasp yet again. I usually resolve to white-knuckle my way through winter, closing my eyes tight until someone taps me on the shoulder to tell me that the summer months of lingering warm light have returned. 

For some, these feelings are intensified due to a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The experience of less daylight, among other things, can contribute to chemical changes in the brain throughout the winter months. Perhaps your lived experience has been lumped into the general “winter blues” category, or perhaps it hasn’t been acknowledged as legitimate. This can increase the difficulty of navigating through this season. 

Author Katherine May, who wrote the book Wintering, has been my personal guide as I have been learning to make my way through the dark winter months. In her book she describes the importance of acknowledging winter as a way to equip ourselves with the tools we need to prepare for it. 

“I recognized winter. I saw it coming, and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it and let it in,” she writes. “When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favored child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable and that my feelings were signals of something important.” 1

What if instead of blocking out my current reality, I was more able to do as May suggests? What if I looked winter straight in the eyes and welcomed it in? After all, it is a gift that we can see it coming and that it can be named and marked in our calendars. We feel the natural evolution of warm to cool to cold air on our skin each day. We can use these calendar and sensory markers as a way to acknowledge our reality, prepare physically and spiritually, and care for ourselves in a difficult season. 

In the early days of dating my (now) husband, we’d go for winter walks. I would show up in tennis shoes, a jacket, no hat, and shiver my way through our conversation while trying to dodge large patches of snow that could easily turn my toes to icicles. His bewilderment at my lack of preparation for winter became a form of light teasing between the two of us. But each year, he would encourage me to invest in one item that would keep me a little warmer than the last. A decade later, I have built up a solid collection of items that keep me toasty on these winter walks we still take together. 

My improved wardrobe has not magically solved all my challenges with winter, though I wish that was the case. But coming to terms with the seasonal changes happening around me signaled that my physical needs were important. I began to prepare my way through winter.

Acknowledging reality doesn’t just look like investing in winter gear. It can also look like embracing spiritual practices as a community. I’ve observed how community groups gather together to symbolically mark December 21— the longest night of the year. It can be called other things, like “Blue Christmas” or “Winter Solstice.” But whatever you choose to call it, there are implications to the fact that this day has a name. 

Perhaps you have been to a Blue Christmas service at your church—a special service that calls attention to the desire to lament and make space for grief within your community. Maybe you have participated in the tradition of gathering around a winter campfire on this evening, or in a winter solstice lantern festival where paper lanterns are released into the night sky. In many Scandinavian countries, Catholics gather on December 13 to pay tribute to Saint Lucy, the patron saint of light. She is represented by a brave volunteer who dresses up in a long white robe and cautiously walks down the aisle while wearing a crown of candles, symbolizing the bringing of light into the dark world.

What strikes me about these events is our inherent desire to name what is happening around us in community spaces. In the midst of what can feel like forced joy and hype in the days leading up to Christmas, we acknowledge the fullness of our humanity, experiencing grief and hope in tandem. These ceremonies help us acknowledge the darkness as legitimate while also turning our attention toward the little bits of light we can find—a crown of candles, a campfire, a paper lantern. 

At Sanctuary we are leaning into the “Hope of Christmas” this season, which is not intended to be a denial of the darkness looming around us or of our own lived experience. It’s an acknowledgement that we have a God who came down to us in human flesh, who is right here beside us to not only share in our sadness, but to help us light the way.

I may not ever master the art of wintering like Katherine May or fully embrace the winter season. But on this deep winter night—the longest one of the year— I try to stay in it for a little while longer. I loosen my white-knuckled grip and look around to see that I have what I need: warm socks, a hat, and a candle that gives me just enough light to see by. I acknowledge the darkness around me, see that God is present here, and hold onto hope, knowing that tomorrow will bring just a little more light than the day before.

More information on Seasonal Affective Disorder:

[1] Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (London: Penguin Random House LLC, 2020), 238.

Cover photo by Paul Green on Unsplash


Rachel Watson

Rachel loves storytelling in non-profit spaces, and has been doing this through various mediums for seven years. With a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies, Rachel has worked with non-profits around the world, from Zambia to Bolivia and now back to Canada, working with Sanctuary as the Social Media and Content Specialist. Rachel loves listening to people’s stories and finding common threads that connect us across cultures. She currently lives in Victoria, BC, because she heard it was one of the warmest places to live in Canada. When she is not writing, you can find her by the ocean.