As I write this, Inuvik is saying goodbye to the sun for the last time this year. Once it slips below the horizon it will not be seen again for 30 days and the long cold dark nights will now be followed by long cold dark days. That might seem like a depressing thought, and certainly an extra dose of vitamin D is recommended for winter living in the North, but I have come to find the dark days of winter one of the most precious times of the year.
It is not that they are not difficult or that they don’t offer a challenge to our ordinary daily routines but, instead, it is precisely in those difficulties and challenges that we receive a wonderful gift that perhaps helps us appreciate life in a way others might take for granted. Here is my thinking:
First, these days come as no surprise. We know they are coming, as they do every year, and we know we need to brace for the darkness. Knowing something difficult is coming our way is a great advantage, as it gives us time to prepare. There is time to stock up on good books and old movies, time to fill the pantry before the grocery shelves empty while ice bridges are being built, time to put away extra firewood for those particularly cold, dark days.
These days remind us that life is full of difficultie, but, knowing that, we can prepare so we are not caught off guard when they come.
Next, when the darkness arrives, it is time to have faith. We can not cower indoors during the dark days. Work must continue as trap lines are tended and fish are caught under the thickening ice. As the snowmobiles patrol the length of the frozen river, their headlights pierce the darkness just far enough to continue a little way and then a little more. When we have faith in God and faith in our own abilities to cope with difficult situations, we persevere, moving forward a little bit at a time.
Then, we need to laugh in the face of hardship even when we feel like crying. This week we lost a beloved town member who succumbed to the cold in a poorly heated house. It was a tragedy and the town is grieving. It is important to acknowledge that grief but, like the cold, we must not lose ourselves to it. So, every year we use these darkest of days to have the greatest of celebrations.
At the Igloo Church we open the doors to the whole community for a grand celebration in preparation for Christmas. As the townspeople arrive they are greeted by beautiful decorations made of ice and snow as we use the harshness of nature to our best advantage. When life gets tough it's time to laugh and sing and to show the world and ourselves we will not be overcome.
Finally, there is solace in knowing the sun will rise again. Though the sun is out of our view, we see signs of its presence still as beautiful displays of fiery red and orange clouds skirt the horizon during the midday. These days without sunshine might seem long but, like all life’s difficult moments, these too will pass. When they do we have the pride of saying we made it through another season of darkness and that is a pride that binds us together in a way that just does not happen when life is too comfortable.
When the sun finally returns in early January there is a collective cheer as the communities pull out the stops to welcome the fresh beginning. There are fireworks and a bonfire made from all the old wooden pallets gathered from the year past. It is a symbolic torching of the old to make way for the new.
As people’s faces are set aglow in the warmth and light of the 40-foot flames, one senses that a transformation has taken place. The darkness has not just been a gap or a pause between one part of the year and the next but, rather, it has been a crucible into which we have been forged into something new and who does not welcome an opportunity to begin again?
Hansen is a Redemptorist priest and pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish, Inuvik. See his website: www.jonhansencssr.com He was named bishop of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith on Dec. 15.