December is a month filled with momentous occasions. Its celebrations include Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hanukkah, and, for denizens of a particular portion of American popular culture, Festivus. It begins with the mourning and activism of World AIDS Day and ends in the celebratory chaos of New Year’s Eve. Here at Salem, it is marked by Moravian stars and by other memories that I have been privileged to hear from alumnae at recent (virtual) events—memories of snow falls, of magically appearing wreaths, and of brass bands outside windows while exams were undertaken.
In many interpretations, December’s celebrations mark the changes of light associated with a particular moment in the Western Hemisphere, the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night: The Winter Solstice. After December 21, we gradually see the nights grow shorter and the days grow longer. The play of light and shadow changes, beginning—once again—at the Solstice. At Salem, the incredible significance of light is marked in our lighting of beeswax candles. So too the play of light and shadow appears in Salem’s alma mater:
Strong are thy walls, oh Salem
Thy virgin trees stand tall.
And far athwart the sunlit hills,
Their stately shadows fall.
In our singing and in our candle lighting—this year together apart—we remind ourselves that beginnings and endings are never entirely distinct, but rather deeply, persistently, and repeatedly entangled. Endings and beginnings repeat, once again, in December.
The repetition itself reminds us of the mundane reality of over and over again and brings with it the paradoxical joy of recognition and acknowledgement. Hope lies in knowing we have been here before. As alumnae, you know that so very well.
In some senses, the echoes of this Solstice are exactly like they were last year and for many, many, many years before. In other ways, these moments in this December are particular. They are our moments, part of this time in our lives. Part of a year we have repeatedly described as unprecedented. And so, we reach nostalgically backwards and optimistically forward. We read the words and light the candles each and every year—they resonate across time while simultaneously defining our time and this moment. We know the layering of words and actions expands their meaning and reminds us that the play of light and shadow changes—and the inexorable movement of time carries us also toward hope.
A teacher of mine, Mircea Eliade, used the phrase “in illo tempore” to refer to a sacred time to which we return—repeatedly—to make and remake our world and ourselves, to make and remake our Salem. Reverberating in some tales as “at that time” and in others as “once upon a time,” December too can stand in for that time for—in its Solstice and its many moments—December reminds us, as Leonard Cohen has over the years—that “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” December reminds us to live in the both/and not the either/or.
I hope you will find this as moving a harbinger of all that December 2020 can mean as I do.
May your December be filled with light—and where it is not, may the cracks truly allow the light in.