In Edinburgh, we have gained 50 seconds more light today compared with yesterday. Tomorrow, a further 58 seconds will be added to the bag, over a minute the following day, and by New Year’s Eve we’ll have a whole six minutes more of daylight than we had on the shortest day a week ago. Not that I’m counting (I am), wishing my life away (I’m not), or hastening the bright evenings in faster than nature intended (I am), but doesn’t it feel good to watch the see-saw tilt away from the darkness? I know it’s early to be counting my chickens (in the sun), but this evening at dusk, as I walked through the city, I felt the tiniest spring in my step, stirred by the hint of lingering light on a cloudless evening. I am, unquestionably, a summer creature, and the only time I can begin to think in any fond way of dark evenings is when they are, oh so slowly, gathering to leave. It’s a bit like filling bags with old clothes to take to charity: at the last minute, those orange stretch Palazzo pants that you’ve not worn since 2003 look like they might have some potential. The city looked beautiful tonight as the light leached. Edinburgh is becoming in the darkness; she is, one could say, even more stately, grandiose, imposing when her spires, monuments, and buttresses are silhouetted against an ochre sky in the east.
Some people revel in the darkness; they find magic in it. John Keats saw it that way: “Tender is the night, / And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, / Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays.” (Ode to a Nightingale.) Keats’s, ‘tender is the night’ line is oft borrowed: F. Scott Fitzgerald (for a novel), Jackson Browne (for a song), and probably more artists besides, agree with him. I’ve never comprehended the night as tender; stern maybe, chiding perhaps, secretive almost certainly. Tender, though, I have discounted, probably because I’ve been determined to count the minutes and seconds of the light contracting then expanding, and I’ve not given much thought as to how I might see long nights as anything other than to be endured, preferably slept through. “Light candles,” C. told me when I told her of my aversion to the winter. “Go outside, get as much light into your eyes as you can when the sun is up,” was S.’s recommendation.
These past few weeks, though, I’ve done more than usual tolet the darkness in, tolet the night time envelope me, to open myself to itslure. First, I met with J. to mark the feast day of Santa Lucia. In Sweden (where J. used to live) they celebrate the darkest time of the year on her day – December 13th. Santa Lucia – or Saint Lucy – is the patron saint of refugees and, according to legend, she brought food to the persecuted who were hiding in the catacombs. Lucia wore a candle-lit wreath on her head, lighting her way and leaving her hands free to carry as much food as possible. Its celebrated in some churches, but we went to the secular version, in a local pub, where in came ten young women carrying candles, dressed in white robes tied with red sashes, and, sure enough, at the head of the precession was Lucia, precariously balancing her crown of four lit tapers. All lights were extinguished and the crowd fell to hush as they sang the famous song: Sankta Lucia, ljusklara hägring (‘Saint Lucy, bright illusion’); Natten går tuna fjät (‘The night walks with heavy steps’). Magic in the darkness. Then, last week I walked the winter trail at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. Trees and shrubs were illuminated from below; the shadows they cast made the skeletal frames look like they’d been dancing, only to be caught in the act, and so they’d frozen, stock still, like a child in a game of musical statues. There were silver tunnels of light, and walls of colour, changing in waves from shades of pastel to neon to smarties. There were trails flanked with giant, radiant lily of the valley, and shards of shining ice hanging from trees. There was even an oversize spray of mistletoe, balls of white light for berries (so much for E.’s assertion that mistletoe is 2018’s ‘objecta non grata’, brought down by metoo – pucker up anyone?) And could I have done any of this under gaudy daylight? Not a chance.
‘She Walks In Beauty’, by Lord Byron (excerpt)
‘She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.’