When The Shorter Days Get Us Down

Oct 24, 2017

Dusk, in the days before, brought "the shutting in."

Here in October, as the days shorten, we all begin to hunker down for winter.

The first snow may be far off. Indian Summer had us in July garb, but forebodings are found in lengthening shadows. Each succeeding day, later sunrises and earlier sunsets stir primitive fears — of dark winters long before our Age of Light.

The Ages of Bronze and Iron are long gone; the Age of Oil is waning. Ours is truly the Age of Light.

Light has become our most versatile tool, reading bar codes, playing DVDs, measuring, chopping, healing… Most of us carry light in our pockets — that flashlight app on our smart-phones.

Light beamed through fiber optic cables carries the messages that girdle the planet.

Thus we have made light as common as breath, as precise as a laptop.

But there was a time when light waged a heroic battle with darkness. It was a time when night skies were not bleached by urban glare, when candles were not romantic novelties, when light was the source of all warmth and safety.  

Deep within us lie ancestral fears — of black midnights and pallid noons. You need only wake at 3 a.m., as I too often do, to feel the primal terror.

Street lights did not become common until the 1700s, even later in rural areas. Dusk, in the days before, brought "the shutting in," the hour when walled cities closed their gates, and all hurried home.
Credit Julie Kumble / NEPR

Street lights did not become common until the 1700s, even later in rural areas. Dusk, in the days before, brought “the shutting in,” the hour when walled cities closed their gates, and all hurried home. Down bleak, cobblestone streets, thieves and murderers roamed. “The night has fallen,” one monk lamented, “covering the world with horrid darkness.”

In these unlit ages, dawn brought celebration.

The Hindu Upanishads speak of sunrise bringing “shouts and hurrahs.” The Apostle Paul assured us that “we are not of the night, nor of darkness.” We are “children of light.”

Lighting candles for Diwali. The Hindu Upanishads speak of sunrise bringing "shouts and hurrahs."
Credit San Sharma / Creative Commons

So when, as October darkens into November, you must carry that torch into December, when at the solstice will see the days begin to lengthen. Then watch us celebrate -- lighting up Christmas trees, menorahs, and whole festivals of light.

In the meantime, light your candles and keep that flashlight in your smartphone handy. It’s getting dark out there.

Bruce Watson of Montague, Massachusetts, is the author of "Light: A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age."