So the shortest day came, and the year died.
So begins Susan Cooper’s enchanting solstice poem, “The Shortest Day,” and those familiar with Tacoma’s annual production of the Christmas Revels will doubtless know the rest.
For the uninitiated, Revels is a tricky thing to describe, even as someone who has had the joy of being in the cast for many seasons. My best stab: Revels is a celebration rooted in mankind’s annual attempt to triumph over winter.
Every year we choose different time and place -- Victorian England, 1930s Appalachia, the Italian Renaissance -- and from those times and places we pull threads of story, song, poetry, music and dance, as well as ancient solstice traditions, and weave them all together into one big beautiful thing we call a Revels.
Some elements return every year regardless of the time period or setting, and perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the returning elements are grounded in the ultimate return: the resurrection of life. Whether it is the death of the old year and the return of the light in “The Shortest Day,” the story of Christ’s resurrection sung in the Lord of the Dance, or the Fool waking St. George from his sleep of death in the Mummer’s play, Revels is one big coming of life story.
Working on the show this year made me think on why humans have needed these touchstones in the dark hours of the year, a time when we are surrounded by symbols of death, skeletal trees clawing at the deadpan sky and the last of our gardens decaying back into the earth.
And for our ancestor’s living before the advent of electricity, the retreat of daylight must have been especially oppressive. But even now we need a reminder that the light will return. Or as Cooper so poetically put it, that “promise wakens in the sleeping land.”
The world isn’t dead, just sleeping.
There was a time in humanity’s not-so-distant past when life and death were even more mysterious, and the line between the two harder to detect. The frequency of people “coming back to life” because they hadn’t actually left life yet led to precautions and rituals ensuring people had truly passed before burial.
But despite all our medical advances, life and death hold as much mystery for us now as they ever did. We argue still about when life begins, wonder still about what happens when it ends, and somehow we often neglect to appreciate the enigma of everything in-between.
But here, at this darkest time of year, we made traditions to help us pass the time in faithful patience rather than ancient fear that the darkness may never end. We bring the evergreens inside to whisper to our subconscious’ ear that some things never die. We devour feasts, sing songs, give gifts and drape our homes with lights.
We turn the grimmest time in the natural world into something to look forward to , something to ward off the idea that maybe this time the light isn’t coming back. And of course it will.
Spring will come again, and again, with or without our offerings. Whether we wassail the apple tree with cider on its roots or not, whether we parade through the town of Abbots Bromley with deer antlers, or not, the earth and sun will complete their celestial do-si-do and bring back the light...won’t they?
I think that’s why we have these things: to banish doubt. Surviving winter, whether it be in nature or the periodic winters of our souls, hinges on us believing in spring long enough for it to come.
We cannot live on hope alone, but we can’t very well go on without it, either.
So burn your candles and make merry; know new green life sleeps beneath the snow, and sing down the darkness. Believe in the light because belief is a kind of light itself, and with a little luck, it will see us through ‘til spring.
Sarah Comer of Puyallup is musician, storyteller and community dance facilitator. She is one of six 2018 reader columnists for The News Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more of her work at www.sarahcomer.com/writing.