State College Friends School
It happens every December. I leave school one day, late in the afternoon, and notice that the sun is already flirting with the western edge of campus. The mountains that circle us are covered with their first dusting of white and I know that it will be dark by the time I get home at 5:00. The branches are bare and the air feels icy and breakable. The experience brings visions of what will sometimes feel like an endless winter that stands between me and April. It happens every December and it makes me melancholy.
I seem to be immune to winter’s charms. Try as I might to see its good side, it’s still little more than three interminable months of wind and cold to me. Friends have suggested that I should learn to do things that can be done only in the winter so that I’ll look forward to its arrival each year rather than dreading it. So, I’ve scheduled my first skiing lesson for the day hell freezes over, and I’ll begin my winter craft-making projects the week after that. I was meant to hibernate in the winter. I was meant to be a bear or a chipmunk for a few months of each year. You can’t cure species confusion by strapping skis to your feet or making wreaths out of old toothbrushes.
Something different happened on this year’s December day, though. This year, I didn’t just jump in the car and try to beat the darkness home. Instead, I turned and looked back through the windows of the school. The building was still full of children and light. We seem to try to pack just as much activity into these short days as we do the long ones. Some students were in violin class or cooking club or in the art room. Middle schoolers were coming and going from basketball practice and chess club. Parents trickled in and out at the end of their work days, picking up children from the After School Program. The school was a tiny hub of activity and light and warmth in the gathering darkness. As so often happens, the very sight of our students lifted my gloom.
I was reminded that important, essential work happens in the darkness. The darkness, both comforting and bleak, is not a void. Sometimes miracles don’t happen on stage; sometimes they need a dark and quiet place in which they can put all their pieces together before revealing themselves to us in their full glory. So, during this time of darkness, I will remind myself that seeds are germinating, the sun is slowly returning, granddaughters are learning to walk, and miracles are happening within small children.
Our pagan ancestors felt the magic of this time of the year, and we continue to mark these dark days of December with our celebrations of light. There’s something holy in the frigid stillness of our longest nights, something sacred in the sense of anticipation, wonder, and hope. It’s a time to gather our children closely, to take joy in the warmth of family and friends. We will rejoice at the solstice when the sun turns its face towards us again.
We will cocoon with our students these next few months, these months when the winds will blow fiercely across our fields, and the basketball court and sandbox will be covered for weeks by snow and ice. Teachers know these deep winter days to be among the most productive academic times of the year. Like those seeds beneath the earth, our students are growing and changing and magical things are happening within them. The day will come when it will all burst out like springtime cherry blossoms and take our breath away.
Some years ago, one of our teachers had a most wonderful winter solstice tradition. On the shortest day of the year, she would take her class outside and when weather conditions cooperated, they would light a flame from the sun of the shortest day of the year…a flame that would burn throughout the longest night that followed. It made me think of catching hope, of holding on to a spark even when things are at their most bleak. A reminder that the warmth, the hope, the promise are always there…sometimes hidden beneath the earth, beyond the stars, or deep within a child…but always there.
Whether you spend this winter with family, on the slopes, making wreaths, or all by yourself with a good book, I wish you happy holidays and the joy of anticipation.
Beloved assistant head of school and child whisperer, Mary retired in 2015. She is missed every day at Friends School.