December 18, 2020
In just a few days, the Winter Solstice will be here; this year December 21 is the date of the shortest day. For millennia humans have celebrated the day when the sun begins its journey towards longer and warmer days. As a genealogist, you may be especially aware of the changes of the seasons since our ancestors were so influenced by them.
In today’s world, it’s easy to be insulated from the natural world. Almost everyone in developed countries has central heating and electric lighting that make it possible for us to forget that the outside world is changing with the seasons. We might put on a jacket to run to the store, but really it’s only symbolic since many of us get into a heated car in a warm garage, drive to the market and then make a quick dash into a warm, well-lighted store. No wonder we see so many folks in shorts and sandals, even in December in Colorado. Our lives are spent indoors where the climate changes very little – air conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter and well-lit all year round.
It hasn’t always been that way. Even as recently as my grandparent’s generation, central heating was unusual. Coal and wood burning stoves were the norm, which meant that the rooms with the stoves were warm, but other rooms were often frigid. Even the warmth in the heated rooms was bought at some cost; coal and wood were usually kept outside the house in a shed and needed to be brought into the house, necessitating a trip out into the elements. Wood also had to be chopped into stove-size pieces, giving rise to the old saying that wood warms you twice – once when it’s burning and once when you’re chopping it. A few generations earlier than my grandparents, even stoves weren’t available, and fireplaces were the means of heating and cooking. We still have a wood-burning fireplace which we use like a part of the decor – a way to cheer up a cold day with a crackling flame – not a way to actually heat the house. Most modern homes don’t even have wood-burning fireplaces; gas flames are the norm. Fireplaces are notoriously inefficient when it comes to heating a house; most of the heat goes up and out the chimney not into the rooms.
Electric lights are another thing we take for granted, but it hasn’t been that long since they weren’t available in most places in the United States. Most folks used smelly, kerosene lanterns and lamps; some of the more affluent in urban areas had gas lights. Both of them were a fire hazard. Before lamps and lanterns, candles were the most common form of lighting. Besides being a fire hazard, candles really don’t do a good job of lighting rooms unless you have a lot of them, which increases the fire danger even more. If you’ve ever tried to read by the light of a candle when the electricity is off, you’ll know that it’s a good way to get eye strain.
Then, of course, there is the matter of bathrooms. Indoor plumbing is a fairly new feature in homes, and many of us may remember our grandparents talking about the freezing trip to the outhouse in the middle of the night or sharing a spooky, dark outhouse with spiders and other creepy crawlers. Almost every antique shop has a few chamber pots for sale; squeamishness often causes us to walk on by, but not that long ago, they were a staple in nearly every household. Emptying them in the morning was a dreaded task for whoever got stuck with it.
In many ways our ancestors’ daily lives were very different from ours. The winter solstice seems like a good time to think about some of those differences. It’s a good day to get in touch, at least in some small way, with the natural world that was so close to those who came before us. When my boys were little, we bought them little red, candle lanterns, and on the night of the winter solstice we lit the lanterns and carried them on a walk around the neighborhood. A December evening is surprisingly quiet and dark in a residential neighborhood, and we got a feel for how it was way back when.
Candles are a simple way to celebrate the winter solstice. I like to turn off all the lights and screens in the house and light a few candles. The house becomes very quiet, and the only sound may be the ticking of an old mantel clock such as the one we have. My great grandparents had a mantelpiece clock, and it was a presence in the house when we visited, bonging out the hours. If you turn out all the light and light candles, corners become shadowy, and it’s easy to feel that you’re spending a little while in your ancestors’ life.
People say that life was simpler in earlier times, but I suspect that it was just as complicated, maybe just in different ways. The winter solstice is a good time to reflect on how different our ancestors’ lives were from ours, and perhaps how similar they were too. Our ancestors noted when the longest and shortest days of the year were and ordered their lives around them because they had to. We have the luxury of ignoring much of nature most of the time, but in a year like this one, when nature has impacted our lives with a vengeance, it’s nice to light a few candles and maybe pick an evergreen bough to bring inside, just to remind us that nature is not that far away – even now.
Researcher/Director at Large