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Winter Solstice Sunday sermon–2009

Winter’s Wisdom

December 20, 2009

Family Minister,  UU Society of Sacramento


“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Deck the Halls,”“All Beautiful the March of Days.”


I grew up in the Midwest, and lived in Indiana and Illinois until my mid-30s.  We had cold winters there, but you could not count on a white Christmas—it didn’t snow that often or stay that cold.  Twelve years ago I moved west, to the San Jose area.  That was where I learned that winter can happen without snow.  One sunny afternoon in San Francisco I sat at an outdoor café, without a coat—it was too warm.  I kept saying to myself:  “It’s December 31st!  I can’t believe it!”  Winter in the Bay Area, as well as in Sacramento, has lots of fog early in the morning, clear sunny days, chilly nights, and rain.

It’s pleasant here, and by now I’m used to our California climate.  Yet Midwestern weather patterns are imprinted on my soul. This makes it hard for me to keep track of dates and seasons.  Two weeks ago I strolled in my neighborhood where a strong wind had showered the streets with brown leaves, and kept enough yellow and red leaves on the branches of the big trees to play with the bright warm sunshine.  The wind was strong and a bit chilly, so I walked on the sunny side of the street.  I said to myself, “What a perfect October day.” Then I remembered that it was December and there were 20 shopping days till Christmas.

Images of winter time in poetry, songs and essays are dominated by ice and snow.  Even though much of this country’s population lives in regions where snow seldom falls, memories are etched in frosty words and pictures.

The music and readings in our Unitarian Universalist hymnals reflect the New England origins of our faith tradition when it comes to climate and weather:  Snow, snow, snow.  Not many words to honor the rejuvenating rain of the western winters.  No poetry to evoke the longings we feel in Sacramento during July and August.  I mean longings like “Get Me Out of Here!”  No lines about our summer night’s cool release:  our beloved Delta breeze.
In the Bay Area I came to love how the hills turn green in the winter, soaking up the rains after the summer heat has taken the moisture and color from the grasses.  The poet Karl Shapiro wrote a poem of his appreciation of our Central Valley winters.  Formerly a professor at the University of California, Davis, Shapiro called his poem California Winter[i], simply enough.

Here’s the last few stanzas:

And skiers from the snow line driving home

Descend through almond orchards, olive farms.

Fig tree and palm tree — everything that warms

The imagination of the wintertime.

If the walls were older one would think of Rome:

If the land were stonier one would think of Spain.

But this land grows the oldest living things,

Trees that were young when Pharoahs ruled the world,

Trees whose new leaves are only just unfurled.

Beautiful they are not; they oppress the heart

With gigantism and with immortal wings;

And yet one feels the sumptuousness of this dirt.

It is raining in California, a straight rain

Cleaning the heavy oranges on the bough,

Filling the gardens till the gardens flow,

Shining the olives, tiling the gleaming tile,

Waxing the dark camellia leaves more green,

Flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile.

In appreciation of our own winter wonderland, and the rains that renew the land, let’s make it rain today.  As a minister I do not claim the power of prayer to bring on rain, or knowledge of any incantations, but our other minister does.  Doug, please make it happen.  [Congregation making sounds of a rainstorm.]


I have a confession.  I am a Christmas-season crank.  Why else would I be wearing a tie with Dr. Seuss’s “Grinch Who Stole Christmas” on it?  And why else would a best friend have given it to me years ago if she didn’t know this about me!

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the song goes, but not for me.  Every December, as nights lengthen and obligations pile up, I have bouts of feeling overwhelmed, annoyed, sad, and downright unspiritual.  The reasons may include the shortness of daylight, unhappy memories of holiday seasons from my youth, and the race to get so many things done before the December 25th deadline.   Most years I don’t feel ready for Christmas …till February.

December makes me feel inadequate as a minister.  Our UU tradition validates many kinds of religious observances as well as civic and secular ones.  However, to be as inclusive as possible in making time for those observances, we’d have to make time for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany for starters–but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Human Rights Day, World AIDS Day, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Day, Pearl Harbor Day, New Year’s Day, the Islamic New Year and the Hindu observance of Diwali, in years when it falls in December.  Maybe you’ve thought of a seasonal observance that I’ve overlooked.

Last Monday I was leading an adult enrichment class, and we included the lighting of a Menorah, to acknowledge Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.  One member asked why we had put a Christmas tree in the sanctuary so early in December, but we didn’t have a Menorah in here last Sunday, right in the middle of the eight days of Hanukkah.  Trying to be non-defensive, I explained that our tree trimming party had been held early this year because I was organizing it, and was going to be out of town last Saturday.  And the Menorah?  This year, it slipped by me.  Last year, it didn’t.  Fortunately tonight we have an enthusiastic team of lay leaders organizing the Winter Solstice ritual and potluck dinner, so I’m confident it will happen.  All I have to do is remember to show up!

The month of December is an accumulation of celebrations, a month when holidays are added but not replaced.   But there were simpler times!  After the Puritan revolt in England in 1645, Christmas was cancelled.  When Massachusetts was a Puritan colony, Christmas was against the law from 1659 to 1681  And “anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings.”[ii] And I thought that I was cranky!

In years past—long past—winter was a time to start slowing down, at least in cold northern climates.  The growing darkness and harsh weather would force people to ease their pace, huddle together, stay close to home, and gather round the fireplace, the hearth. A century ago in many parts of the country, the wood-burning fireplace was a household’s center of life, drawing folks together for warmth.  Nowadays the wood-burning fireplace is not usually a source of heat or a place for cooking in a house, but an architectural decoration.  It’s a source of nostalgia for an era that many of us didn’t experience.  Also in earlier times, winter provided obstacles to traveling large distances—this kept life simpler and slower, if no less difficult.  Now, the speed of modern travel and the comfort of warm cars has made it easy to become “heedless of the wind and weather.”  Of course, we’re lucky to be able to travel—except for the times we’re like those poor people now snarled in the snowfall on the East Coast.

So, noting such dramatic exceptions, I still think that in our time the winter cannot require us to slow down, especially in this local climate.  Winter can’t make us–but it still invites us–to take some time, stay inside, and go inward personally, to reflect and rest.

Sometimes the only thing that can make us pause or slow down is not our conscious choice but a crisis, like freezing rain, a power outage, an illness.  A hardworking friend has told me that he rarely has to take sick time and stay at home, but when he does get sick it gives him permission to let go.  It insists that he let go.  Being sick enough to have to stay home in bed–but not so ill that you are totally out of it–can be like a vacation, only you don’t get frequent flier miles for it.  Of course, many workers in our state and nation have no paid sick time for family needs or personal illness, and for those without health insurance, an illness can be a disaster, rather than a break from hard work.  Maybe it’s better not to count on a crisis to slow us down.

It takes intention and effort to take a break from our demanding lives.  How about that—it takes effort to let go!  For example, I try to counteract my December stress by keeping to my morning meditation and to my exercise routine as much as I can. I try to get a good night’s sleep.  But I’m not sure any of it works.  Even with all this, I still feel crazy, chaotic and cranky!  I can barely imagine how much worse off I would be without some ways to ground myself.  Actually I can remember Decembers past when I was much more frenzied.  Once was in such a distracted hurry that I backed into someone in a parking lot.  Another time, I filled my gas tank at a self-serve station and drove a mile down the road before I realized that I hadn’t paid.
I guess I’m better now.  I still dislike the early sunsets of this time of year, but I try to counteract my resentment by getting up from my desk in the afternoon at 4:30 or 5:00 and going for a short walk in the neighborhood.  It’s a way to ease myself into the evening, to greet the darkness instead of cursing it, as well as to get one last glimpse of daylight.  This helps me think of winter as an gentle invitation, rather than as a curse.  A song written by Shelley Jackson Denham says:  “Dark of winter, soft and still, your quiet calm surrounds me.  Let my thoughts go where they will; ease my mind profoundly.  And then my soul will sing a song, a blessed song of love eternal.  Gentle darkness, soft and still, bring your quiet to me.”  (SLT hymnal #55)

I can’t say for sure that any spiritual practice makes a big difference in my experience of the season, but I trust that it helps, even if I’m not able to do it every day.  It’s act of trust and faith that something is going on under the surface of life, something is worth waiting for.  That’s the message of our UU spiritual heritage:   Something is worth waiting for–in every single person, in each one of us.  The late Andrew Wyeth, a painter from Pennsylvania, said he preferred the landscape of a northern winter to that of spring.  He said:  “Something waits beneath [a winter landscape] — the whole story doesn’t show.”

I’ve been thinking of life as a garden, in particular a west-coast winter garden.  Rosalie Wright  has written (in Sunset magazine, 1999) that winter “is the quietest time in a garden.  But just because it looks quiet doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.  The soil, open to the sky, absorbs the pure rainfall while microorganisms convert tilled-under fodder into usable nutrients for the next crop of plants.  The feasting earthworms tunnel along… preparing [the soil] to welcome the seeds and bare roots to come.”

By the time Christmas arrives, I may not have accomplished all my tasks and goals for the month.  I will have experienced my sad, anxious and cranky times.  But I also will be surprised now and then—and have already had surprises, such as when I can see a bigger picture, when I can feel that things are okay however they are happening, however they might happen. If I don’t spend energy fighting against the unpleasant moments of life, I can make room for the hidden, pleasant moments to emerge.  I make room for gladness and grace.

Maybe some of you can find a simple practice to give yourself:  taking a break, sitting in silence, noticing the breath, giving thanks, or otherwise choosing to give yourself a moment before doing the next thing.  To me, that’s the wisdom of the season—an invitation to tend our lives as gently as gardener in the winter.

Winter is a time of preparation—of watching as well as tending.  This means both activity and waiting, motion and rest.  Life’s gifts can’t be ripped open like a wrapped package.  If we watch and wait, and give some attention and faith to what is under the surface of life, its gifts open themselves.

Every person’s life is a reason for gratitude.  It’s a gift.  Life is a gift worthy of tending like a winter garden, worth our patience and our attention.

May you make room for blessings this coming week, this winter season, and in all the days to come.  May you be blessed.

So may it be.  Amen.





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