The beginning of February is a meaningful time for adherents of a variety of earthbound traditions. In the Netherlands it used to be celebrated, mostly in rural communities, as “Lichtmis”, literally Lightmas.
It marks the first beginnings of spring. I did not feel it, yet. I like winter itself, but towards the end I always go through a tough time. Like many other people, the lack of light and the cold makes me drowsy and inert. It is a physical thing, and by keeping busy I usually manage to keep depression at bay. While I enjoy the cosiness of the dark evenings, I am just in a much better shape in spring and summer. Today, I noticed a change in the light for the first time. The sun was shining with vigour between the icy showers. The unexpected warmth on my back as I rode my bike into town reminded me that spring will come again soon. Just weeks from now, everything will start fresh and anew. I’m looking forward to the advent of the first light green leaves in my garden.
I love the seasons. And even though Dutch seasons are pretty bland compared to other places (we usually get plenty of rain in all four of them), I would not want to miss them for the world. The wheel of the year marks the ups and downs all people must invariably have. The seasons of the world outside take us on an inner journey. This time of winter is my downtime, which is by no means less valuable than the highly busy frenzy of summer. Like bulbs, we need to sleep a while in order to grow again.


The dead of winter

These cold January days are equivalent to midnight, we are in the heart of winter. Nature sleeps breathless. Everything lies either rotting or frozen, depending on the weather. On a personal level, death is around too. Both my mother and one of my grandfathers died this time of year, so I often find myself thinking of them. It also takes me back to the person I was and the beliefs I had at the time. Of course I’m very much alive but like a tree, certain branches have been torn off by the winds of life. New branches of me have grown in unexpected directions.
I realised that a substantial part of my conversion to Christianity had to do with not wanting death to be the final answer. But I no longer feel the need to conquer death. We will probably never be friends, but he does not scare me as much as he used to. A conversation with a couple of Jehovah’s witnesses a few months ago made me realise that. Very little people ever speak of their religion in my surroundings, so I enjoy talking to them whenever they come by. The day they came by was a lovely autumn day, sunny and warm, so the front door garden still looked good. I talked pleasantly with them by the door for a while. Of course they have a clear and specific purpose with these conversations, but I do not mind that. They admired the garden and they started talking about the beauty of creation. But also what a shame it was that everything in creation was broken in a way and sure to die. I said I did not mind that. ‘But what about your loved ones?’ I thought about that for a while and answered ‘no’. Of course, I would be heartbroken if my husband or children were to die. I would be very sad if an older family member passed on. But as I talked to them I felt I had come to terms with death as a necessary part of life. Good times, relationships and love do not lessen in value because they are temporary. They become even more precious in the awareness of limited time. Once people have passed on into the unknown, their lives do not cease to have meaning. We live today because of the efforts and love of others. And the moments and love we shared, did happen. That alone should suffice in giving them meaning.
When the witnesses had left, I found myself wondering whether I had meant what I had said. Had I finally said goodbye to the notion that there had to be a definite purpose to it all, or was life and therefore change itself indeed the end of all that lived? Life ever new, ever dying and re-emerging, not just on this earth but far beyond with stars being born, burning up and fading out all across the universe as we speak. ‘Yes’, it answered in me. It felt good and honest to admit death his place in the scheme of things.

the Bonfire

So here we are, in the dreary mid January days. I’m always sad to see our tree go, but it was high time.
Where we live, the council pays 50 euro-cents for every Christmas tree we bring to the bonfire, so it is a great way for kids to supplement their pocket money. My son is a young teenager now and does not feel like going up and down with trees attached to his bike all day for a couple of euros, but my daughter is still very enthusiastic. So our small backyard was littered with sad old Christmas trees. Not in the least because she gets to see the big fire for herself as well. It is all very well supervised by the fire department but still, it is awesome to watch.

Burning trees around Midwinter is an ancient Germanic custom. In other areas of the Netherlands it is done on New Years day, often without the permission of the authorities. A far more recent addition to this custom is the rowdy New Year’s lighting of fireworks. Although I’m not a huge fan of fireworks myself, it does create a very special atmosphere and makes a Dutch New Years Eve quite extraordinary.

Fire is an ambiguous force in nature, dangerous and indispensable in our chilly climate at the same time. It is a power that cannot be harnessed easily. Witnessing the large pile of trees going up in flames always makes me a bit melancholy. On the other hand, it signals a clear end to the languid, opulent days of the festive seasons. It is a sobering reminder that all good things come to an end. From the ashes, we have to create a new year from scratch.