I recently discovered the real reason why we love this time of year. Like most so-called discoveries, it was really the recovery of something forgotten and it came by accident – sort of like Columbus running into America when he was looking for Japan. Not that I’m any Columbus.
It had been a dark, almost smoky afternoon, going to full black of night by the time I pulled into the misshapen urban hole of angry traffic and scattered, frightened pedestrians the center of the small city where I live routinely turns into at this time of day. Rush hour; end of day. Only an important mission would bring me here at this hour: I was having trouble with my eyes. I needed new lenses, in order – nota bene – to see.
I pulled into the first curbside parking place that presented itself, even though I was unsure of my destination, because parking can be especially difficult this time of day. Commuters vulching over your taillights eager to grab the next millimeter of forward progress, incredulous that anyone would want to go somewhere in this place rather than through it to somewhere else. And one wrong move in the irrational world of city center streetscape, as I have discovered to my sorrow, can mean long minutes of regret, frustration – and the boiling claustrophobic anger road failure breeds in the hardiest of spirits.
So, with this experience in mind, I took the corner spot, stepped out of the car, and stuck my hand out to feel for rain. We had already been through some weather that day – the sudden flurry of thickened precipitation, raindrops growing cold and sticky, bumping and clumping together on the way down. The misty, vaporish rain, less like precipitation than somebody continually ringing out damp sponges over the city, accounted for the air’s violet tinge. The air was very damp; it was also soaked in a wet smoky clinging umbra that was both theatrical and silent.
Somehow day had become night. There is not much late afternoon left in the last week of November, of course, so a dark afternoon becomes night in a soul’s whisper.
No real rain moistened my extended palm as I stood on the solitary sidewalk, though dampness coated the air like sweat on a glass; so I relaxed, knowing I could proceed at any easy pace. I took a few steps in what I hoped was the right direction and, suddenly, with no warning, utterly unexpectedly, the wonder of it was…
Everything was beautiful. Irrationally, piercingly, the way only something seen fresh because it is also completely remembered can be. Founded, I decided, on a unique moment in solar time: twilight hour in early winter, helped along by the slow advance of early, wet, wintry gloom.
This is what we mean, what we really mean, by “the season.” The way I parse the moment’s warm but lonesome poetry, the effect stems from the conjunction of lighted shop windows over dark streets. The world goes dark, shockingly early; the lights go on. This conjunction – nature darkening, city streets lighting up – takes place only at this time of day at this time of year: darkness before five o’clock, a time when it’s still “business hours” on commercial district streets – and therein lies the magic. After five o’clock, those shops and small offices start turning off their lights; employees go home. The effect weakens.
As the year advances beyond the winter solstice, the sky stays lighter longer and the commercial blocks have no need to beam their contrasting windows of light into the world’s darkness.
It’s the poetry of the lighted shop windows – irrespective of what may or may not be in them – that wakens our nostalgic love of “the season.” And it’s this hour of the day, this moment of darkness’s heart-stopping arrival in a time of dwindling daylight, that opens the “season” to our senses.
Winter days begin to lengthen after Christmas. We all feel the change in January, it’s already a different season then. Still winter, but the world is growing lighter, an effect heightened by snow cover. Soon daylight lingers beyond five o’clock’s closing time, and we no longer have the crucial conjunction of dark sky and lighted storefronts. Only businesses that stay open nights, restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, light up the city streets – it’s not the same. It’s another season then (cabin fever winter, maybe); it’s not this one.
This brief, once a year overlapping of light and dark is what makes the holiday season. These are the physical sensations that trigger the memories, a conditioned response to light and dark (probably colder temperatures play a role too) that releases the flood of sensations and associations built up over the course of our lives. Routines: rushing home in the dark; getting off the bus; driving a tired highway to make it home for Christmas; the glinting low-angled sun, even at midday, when we round a familiar bend and look at a stand of bare trees; when we smell the smoke of someone’s fire place or the pinch of someone else’s pine tree, taste a liquor on the tongue we virtuously avoid the rest of the year, see a round of familiar faces. Older; but still familiar…
I wander down the city center street, into the evocative gloom, interrupted by geometries of human light. Cars drive past the holiday lights and the nativity scene where “Baby Jesus” was stolen from the manger two years ago and the local paper blared the “story” on the front page day after day. Pedestrians double-time halfway across main street to the traffic island, a desert isle where they wait, stranded, desperation straining their features, for the change of the light to rescue them.
But the violence of crazy machines flying through downtown is assimilated this season into the wild fluency of the looming love-hungry urban dark, as the clock nudges past four thirty. A mother and a daughter walk slowly on a shop visit of their own. Clerks stare from the temples of their lighted interiors at the few passersby, registering a solitaire like myself without expression, counting the day’s last minutes to close-up maybe, or hoping to reel in a last fish. The wider lighted interiors of the furniture showroom; a bare martial arts studio. The towering urban mall edifice with floors of offices inside, doctors’ offices, talkers’ offices, many of these lighted, some already dark, some to stay lighted for hours.
The heavy beasts of the metro buses panting with fatigue and contained fury as they hang in the intersection, judging the moment of the lunge into the main way; the gritty smell and scraping rattle of the engine.
The season is not these things, which are always there, though somehow transformed this time of year. It’s not the department store music, which we’re tired of. It’s certainly not shopping, though some people claim to enjoy it (I’m skeptical, personally). It’s not what we think it is.
It’s something more universal. It’s the light; and the darkness. It’s the universe calling us, buttonholing us, making us pay attention.
I am going the wrong way, I realize at last, after a skeptical reading of street numbers. I turn around and walk back down main street until I come to the store in front of which I have fortuitously parked my car. It’s the shop I wanted. I go inside to get my new lenses. I have remembered how to see.