Seasonal Salon

The Light and Dark of It

Mid-December, and the light continues to diminish each day. The days of the “sol-stice,” the “sun standing still,” are not yet here, but they grow closer. Within a few days, the sun will pause for the twelve days of Christmas, that period when daylight and night pause briefly in their annual dance. It is like the planet takes a deep breath before beginning its great cycles again.

This seems an appropriate time to think about the use of words relating to “dark” and “light” in our everyday speech and in our writing. To do so, we have to look at the philosophic tradition of western Europe. For a couple of thousand years, its dualistic thinking has imagined a world neatly divided into good things and bad, with the two sides endlessly at war. Women should be especially wary of such dualistic thinking, because we always wind up on the side of “bad,” along with “darkness” and “emotion.” (Check James Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics for a really fine list. If you have trouble seeing our culture’s dividing line, he spells it out.) The other side is described as “good,” “light,” “intellect”—and of course “male.” Sun/Moon. Mind/body. Heaven/earth. In every case, the “dark side” is the wrong side. (Right/wrong.)

But our planet is not a world of endless war but of regular exchange between dark and light. Plants could not grow without the rest that winter provides. We, too, evolved on this planet, whose tilted axis creates our memorable seasons. We need the yearly darkness, just as we need the rest that night provides in each cycle.

Dualism creates a hierarchy from linked polarities, but it does more: It insinuates a clear dividing line between “good” and “evil,” between “light” and “dark.” In this, dualism strains against nature, for we spend most our lives in twilight and clouds, in the ambiguous spaces between extremes. We can never root out darkness because it is so intricately blended with light.

However unrealistic it is, dualism is embedded in our language. “You sure seem in a black mood today” or “Oh, lighten up!”—both imply that darkness is bad. Or how about “denigrate” (to “blacken” someone’s name)? The messages are sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden, but they are always the same: darkness is bad, evil, something to be avoided or destroyed. If we pay attention to words, we will soon find how difficult it is to articulate another vision, one that honors darkness as well as light. But it is a task worth trying.

For a start, try writing about the dark time of year by embracing its positives. Look at the beauties of the solstice time and celebrate them. There is a reason that humans throughout history have made winter solstice the most extravagant time of festival. For in the darkness, we find intimate mysteries invisible in sharp daylight. The old feminist slogan of “take back the night” continues to be philosophically relevant.

Patricia Monaghan’s latest book of poetry, Homefront, addresses the ongoing affects of war on women and children. More information and ordering details can be found at

Category: Winter Solstice 2005