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Winter Light and Long Starry Nights

December 21, 2010

December dawn (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Many people I know don’t consider the winter solstice a cause for celebration; for them, it marks the depressing shortage of light in winter. Others do celebrate, but what they are celebrating  is the return of light that will follow the solstice. The winter solstice means something different to me, a celebration that marks the beauty of winter’s long starry nights and quality of light.

What winter lacks in quantity of light, it makes up for in quality. I love the soft light that is created by the low angle of the sun in the winter sky, a soft brightness that is enhanced by snow. There are early winter mornings when I open  my eyes and know, just by the quality of light in my bedroom, that it has snowed during the night; no matter how often I experience this, it is always a special moment. There are also light shows that occur only in winter. One of my favorites happens when sleet or freezing rain is followed by cold weather that keeps the ice on the trees; in mid-afternoon, about an hour before sunset, I can look out through the glass door that leads onto the deck and find that each droplet of ice has been turned into a tiny prism, so that the woods behind my house seem to have been strung with thousands of multi-colored Christmas lights.

Moonlight seems brighter to me in winter, especially when snow cover reflects that light. When I arrived here several nights ago, after the long 600-mile drive from Pennsylvania, the near-full moon provided enough light for several trips up the back slope stairs to the back door as I unloaded the car. Although it was overcast here last night (no chance to see the lunar eclipse), the landscape was still lit by moonlight almost as bright as daylight when I went to bed.

And then there are the amazing star-filled nights of winter.  I live in a rural area where there is still relatively little light pollution, and this makes the long nights of winter (especially moonless nights) particularly suited to star-gazing.

At least three things probably contribute to my love of winter, with its short days and long nights. First, I have never suffered from the light-deprived depression of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Second, I live in a part of the world (the US state of Maine) where winter is considered a special season in its own right, with its own distinctive pleasures. People here look forward to snow and the opportunity for snow-based winter activities (from snow-shoeing to snowmobiling). I know I’m not the only Mainer who prefers winter to spring ( AKA mud season). Third, at my location just south of the 45th parallel, winter days are not all that short – just under nine hours on the solstice; I might be a little less enthused if I lived north of the 50th (or 60th!) parallel.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the rituals that give me so much pleasure in winter involve the juxtaposition of light and darkness. On clear afternoons, for example, as the sun sinks below the horizon and the light fades, I love to keep the lights out in the house and stand by the window to watch the stars come out. Moonrises are also special in winter, when the rising moon is visible through the woods behind my house. If the timing is right, especially when the moon is full, I can sit at the dining room table in a darkened house and eat dinner by candlelight, looking out at the moonrise. This is an experience that never fails to fill me with both peace and joy.

Even as you look forward to the lengthening days to come, take a few moments to savor the special light and the star-filled nights of winter.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2010 11:15 pm

    Wonderful post. I look for snowy days to shove all the plants up near the windows so they can get as much light as possible. Snow sports are the best. I live 20 minutes from a ski resort, plus myriads of hills to sled on and trails to shoe or cross-country ski over. I do live in a metro area, however, and the pollution makes things miserable after a while; we are subject to inversions of smog because of our topography. The day after a storm, when the air is clean and everything is brilliant white are days to live for. The mountains here are solid white and are literally blinding in the morning sun. Winter is superior to summer in many ways in my book.

  2. December 22, 2010 12:02 am

    A beautiful solstice post. I’m probably guilty of being one of those that celebrates the lengthening days after the solstice. We don’t get snow, more’s the pity, and at the moment we’re mostly surrounded by gushing waterfalls and lots of mud! I so agree about the quality of winter light though, and I do remember as a child being able to tell when snow had fallen in the night before I even opened the curtains. Happy holidays Jean.

  3. December 22, 2010 3:21 am

    After reading your description in this post, I am already starry eyed and yearn to spend times like this in a wintry night. I have never even seen snow 😦 Jean, have a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year!

  4. Ali permalink
    December 22, 2010 7:41 am

    What a lovely post, offering a good reminder of one of the things I love about winter, the starry brilliance of a dark starry night. Happy winter!

  5. December 22, 2010 9:09 am

    Jean, what a lovely way to think of solstice. I’m afraid I was celebrating the return of light. Although I love the starry nights here I have stress about driving in darkness. Lately I’ve been mourning the distinct lack of snow we’re experiencing. So nice to see you were greeted with a beautiful blanket of it. There’s nothing like it to make the landscape shine.

  6. December 22, 2010 9:26 am

    Thank you for this post, Jean! I love winter and I miss the snow. It looks like we won’t have a white Christmas… It was pleasure to look at your winter picture and read all the wonderful words about snow, special winter light and other wonders of the season. Happy Holidays to you!

  7. December 22, 2010 10:20 am

    A lovely, moving post, Jean. I’m not a fan of dark days, so I greet Solstice with all joy, knowing that after Long Night, the days begin to lengthen. I do need this time to rest and regenerate and get inspired again, but I also enjoy the cold beauty of many days. Happy Christmas and Solstice and New Year to you…

  8. December 22, 2010 1:11 pm

    I love your title and thoughtful text of this post Jean. Indeed winter offers us special light and the night skies are never as beautifully lit. Lovely you can be in your beloved country home for the holidays. Merry Merry Christmas and Happy Winter Solstice.

  9. December 22, 2010 1:43 pm

    Here in Montreal, we are experts on winter. Yet, I have never experienced that season quite as beautifully as you have described it. Surely there is something special about winter in rural areas. How lucky you are.

  10. December 22, 2010 7:08 pm

    Winter sure does sound special where you are! I know what you mean about the quality of light. Even though we are in a suburban area there are few lights around us since the schools turn them all off at night, I think the stars are brighter in winter at night. I’m looking forward to longer days though, I’m loading up on my Vitamin D to get me through the winter and then hopefully we’ll see more sun this year than we did last year.

  11. December 22, 2010 7:26 pm

    I lived in Maine for 10 years and agree with you completely. Winter nights when there was snow on the ground were magical—so quiet, the smell, the crunch, the light. Walking in the snow at night is one of the most beautiful experiences ever. And Maine has the most dismal spring ever. Here in southeastern PA I treasure the rare snowstorms (except last winter when we had more than ME). Winter cold with bare ground is miserable. But the springs are so glorious that it makes up for it. I always say what’s good about PA is bad about ME, and what’s good about ME is bad about PA.

  12. December 22, 2010 8:40 pm

    I agree with you so much about the special quality of the light this time of year. I used to do a lot of desert trips in December or January to places with wide open vistas, where the horizons were always a soft yellow color from the winter light. Happy solstice to you!

  13. December 22, 2010 10:40 pm

    I loved your descriptions of winter’s light and starry nights! We rarely get snow here, so when we do it’s a special event. I love the way evergreens look with garlands of snow, and I love how icicles sparkle in the sun. The weatherman has mentioned a possibility of snow flurries on Christmas Day. Nothing to stick, of course, but we all whisper about a white Christmas. That has never happened here in my lifetime.

    Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, and great joy in the lengthening days of the new year.

  14. December 23, 2010 8:38 pm

    I so agree with your descriptions of the joys of winter. I too look forward to snow and also know instinctivley upon awakening whether it has snowed at night. Winter air is crisp and clear, the atmosphere is free of the haziness that accompanies warmer temperatures and, as a result, everything feels so fresh and brisk. Too many miss the pleasures of winter air and exhuberation of getting some sort of exercise in winter weather. One of my favorites is a walk while it is snowing. The quiet allows you to hear the snowflakes meet the ground. The world is still since most everyone is tucked away inside.

    Bon hiver, Jean. Enjoy your winter break.

  15. December 23, 2010 10:43 pm

    A beautiful reflection on the wonders of winter. I have to agree that winter nights seem to hold so many more stars. Thanks for sharing.

  16. December 25, 2010 4:19 pm

    Merry Christmas, Jean. I will try to look at the dark season with your eyes. Now that there’s snow on the ground it’s easier. Great post as always.

  17. December 31, 2010 5:54 pm

    Reading your post made me feel as if I were there to experience that winter light, Jean! I do so miss ‘real’ winters, where snow covers the ground more often than not, and the sky is lit up by the mo0n & stars. Here in ‘suburbia’ the nights are unnaturally lit by surrounding residences, shopping centers and the like. Mike & Michael just got back yesterday from Maine, where they enjoyed fresh powder and the beauty that you described. How I miss those days when I lived there! Last winter we at least had snow here for quite some time…but it still was not the same as a Maine winter, which consists of FAR MORE than snow alone! Thank you for describing it so well.

  18. January 7, 2011 2:21 pm

    I just got your blog today and I am enjoying the reading. Beautiful post as a poem dedicated to light. Grown up in subtropical (almost dessert), I started to experience exactly what you are describing only few years ago and love it! and for photography is a completely and fascinating new world. Thanks for sharing.

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