That’s the great dark and light equalizer event, isn’t it?
It’s what always comes to mind when I find myself panicking about the ebbing afternoon sun or about the days inching into winter, the calendar limping toward the end of the year.
In the Christian tradition, we spend this time around the winter solstice waiting. This season of winter waiting is Advent, from the Latin, “adventus;” it means “coming.” God is coming to be with us, among us, one of us.
Growing up Catholic, it was easy to mark the days before Christmas with our daily Advent calendars and our weekly lighting of candles in the Advent wreath. We opened little doors or windows in the boxy cardboard calendars and found chocolate or tiny toys. We showed up at Mass, and a new candle in the wreath was lit. We waited in the dark, but the light was coming. We knew it was coming and we waited and we marked the time
. It was hard to keep the focus right. We still got caught up in the shopping and the festivities. We were waiting to celebrate the coming of a Savior.
But as a kid, I was waiting for the version of Christmas that the mall was advertising. I was waiting for toys and for feasts and for Santa Claus. Each week the Advent calendar showed me a picture of the Nativity on the outside: a star, a manger, a wise man. But it promised candy on the inside. I’d gloss by the pictures wanting only the treasure within.
The first two candles lit in the Advent wreath at church were purple, symbolizing hope and faith. The third candle was pink, for joy. That pink candle stood out to me; it caught my attention. It was an interruption in the purple candles placed in a sea of evergreen on the altar. We were close when the pink candle was lit.
The last candle lit on the wreath, the Sunday before Christmas, symbolized peace. It’s something I cannot seem to summon that close to Christmas anymore. There is still too much to do. It’s my own fault, with my procrastinating and losing track of time—that pink candle sneaking up on me, that last purple sealing the deal. I need something, something to sustain me here as I hover around the winter solstice.
A few years ago, I was at Target somewhere around the winter solstice. It was late afternoon, approaching dark already, and I was nearing desperation because I was not done shopping. I always leave shopping for as long as I can. I hate to shop. In a last-ditch effort to finish, I braved the cold and the dark and my fellow crazy last-minute shoppers.
I pulled into a hard-fought parking space at the Target and sat in my car for a minute or seven. I do that. I have to steel myself before entering stores because I hate shopping that much. Sometimes I give myself a pep talk. Sometimes I just breathe and remind myself to pay attention.
As I sat there, working up my courage, I noticed a young woman sitting in her car across the row from me. I reasoned that perhaps she was getting up her courage as well. I watched her for a moment to distract myself from the task ahead. The store would be packed out if the parking lot gave any indication. It was cold, but not terribly cold on this day. Cold enough for snow, though, and it fell in fragile flakes as I watched, melting the moment it touched the warm windshield of my car
. I’d left it idling there for warmth for a length of time while I waited and watched. But other cars began to stalk my spot, hoping perhaps that I would be leaving, so I decided to turn off the motor. The woman in the car across the row was my age or older, middle age at least, with dark hair that curled around her face, sticking out from under what appeared to be a warm hat. Her head was bowed as if in prayer, but more likely it was bowed in reverence only to her smart phone. As I watched, her head shot up then, and she looked straight ahead. I thought she’d caught me watching, but I did not look away.
In the next minute, she quickly exited her car and closed the door hard. She proceeded to brush crumbs from the front of her coat. This should not have been all that interesting, except that she brushed them with so much vigor and resolve; it was striking to me.
She brushed off her coat and then unzipped and brushed off her sweater with the same vigor and resolve. Crumbs fell from her sweater and coat continuously, littering the ground around her feet, punctuating the new falling snow. This went on for three or four minutes, and crumbs just kept falling. It felt like an eternity, an avalanche of crumbs.
At one point she pulled her sweater away from her body, even jumping up and down a little, and sure enough, more crumbs found their way to the parking lot. When she was through, she looked around, straightened her sweater, zipped up her coat, and walked away from her car and into the store.
Shortly thereafter, a flock of pigeons came along and cleaned up the evidence. They descended as though they’d been watching all this time, just waiting for their moment. They waited for the bread to fall—food for the winter, a kind of manna in the parking lot, enough to sustain them from solstice to solstice.
I think of this scene now from time to time—the leap from the car, the jumping and shaking out of the coat, the crumbs falling, the birds descending. I think about times of waiting, for good news, for test results, for breadcrumbs, for birthdays and holidays, but especially at this time of year.
It comes to me often at Advent, when we’re waiting like this for the coming of Christ. I think about the shopping and the distractions and the feasting and the little cardboard doors that open onto treasure, about candles lighting week after week. And I think about the dark of the morning and the dark of the late afternoon and the promise of light that comes. We flock to it like breadcrumbs falling on the fragile snow. It is the promise of God with us, light to counter the darkness, enough to sustain us from solstice to solstice.
Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”
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It’s dark when I wake now, and it’s dark too in the afternoon when the kids get off the bus and make their way home. “When will it stop being so dark?” my son asks. I shake my head. “Maybe after the winter solstice,” I say.