Tomorrow is the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, everything will slowly start getting lighter and brighter. And never in my lifetime has that felt like more of a perfect metaphor.
Christmas is perhaps the festival that most obviously commemorates the light in the darkness at this time of year, but it is not the only festival to acknowledge the darkest days and prepare for the light. Hanukkah is a smaller part of the Jewish ritual year than North Americans typically make it out to be – it is not nearly as important as Passover – but it is a real Jewish festival of light at the darkest time of the year. So too, Westerners mark a new year beginning just as the old year is at its darkest.
All these events happen every year. But this is a year like no other.
I’ve lived through a number of world-historical events by now: the fall of Soviet Communism, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the conquest of Kuwait and first Gulf War, the World Trade Center attacks and the wars that followed them, the rise of authoritarian populism and Donald Trump. But all of these were abstract, things I simply read about on the news. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first such event to affect me personally – as it surely has affected you as well. Not since the Vietnam War has there been an event with consequences as wide-reaching in the United States. In other places, like Canada, no event has had such great effects since World War II – an event that only a tiny minority of us now remember, and the pandemic has caused their number to dwindle even more rapidly.
But here, at the winter solstice, there is a turning point. Human ingenuity combined with a vast infusion of government money has developed multiple vaccines at unprecedented speed. Governments around the world have deemed two vaccines safe and effective enough for use. In this past week rival delivery companies have teamed up to get the vaccines out as fast as possible, and doctors and nurses have already started receiving vaccinations. The rest of us can expect our own vaccinations to take place by next summer – and from there for life to get back to normal, to enter a world where schools and restaurants and bars are all open again and we can board trains and planes without fear.
Here in the United States, there is a different and unrelated turning point. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump with a major victory in the official Electoral College and an even bigger moral victory in the popular vote. Trump has flailed around for ways to declare the result illegitimate, on the flimsiest of evidence. Many still believe him, but those who have the power to do something about it and have actually examined the evidence – including the three Supreme Court judges who owe their careers to Trump – do not. The era defined by the president’s cruelty, disregard for rule of law, pandemic-related incompetence, and incredible self-centredness is ending.
It is not over yet, though. Biden’s inauguration is not for another month; Trump remains president until then, and he can and probably will do a great deal of damage in the interim. And the festivals about this time of year remind us that we are still in the darkness. As for the pandemic, infection numbers continue to rise, to get worse. They will probably get worse still as people travel and see their families unprotected at Christmas, just as happened at American Thanksgiving. The vaccines will fix this problem eventually, but a long, dark winter still awaits us – and it would be the height of rash foolhardiness to act as if the problem was already solved, to expose others to the virus before they are able to get the vaccine.
So we still face more lockdown, more Trump, more darkness. But such darkness is made more bearable by the impending light – the light declared by the festivals of this time of year. The light is coming. We still need to slog our way through the time before the new dawn comes: happiness has no enemy greater than the declaration, “I’ll be happy when…” We need to remind ourselves to be happy now that things will get better in the future, not to wait on being happy until they get better. There is light at the end of the tunnel – but we’re not on a train, we’re walking. Christmas and Hanukkah – and for that matter Diwali, held earlier in the year as the light begins to dim – remind us to keep our own lights burning now, while the world around us remains dark.
That the historical turning points happen to be happening at the winter solstice is of no cosmic significance. It has always been tempting for humans to see in the world what Charles Taylor calls a meaningful order, where correspondences are not coincidences and everything happens for a reason: the kind of view that, early in the history of astronomy, allowed Francesco Sizzi to form the hypothesis that one could infer the number of planets in the solar system from the number of openings in the head. For a believer in God, even centuries after Sizzi was proven wrong, it would still be difficult to resist seeing divine providence in the timing of recent events: this is the moment when God, and the godly work of those human beings working together to save lives, have brought it all together. For me, I see no such divine work in the world. That 2020’s human historical events are turning from darkness to light at the same time that the seasons do – this is mere coincidence. It is, however, a beautiful coincidence, and in these times that is more than enough reason to celebrate. (At a distance.)