Monday was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It is the night, by ancient tradition, when we turn toward the light and begin the minute-by minute slog toward long summer evenings and the susurration of warm wind in the trees. For me, this sustaining vision seemed far away, an impossible dream on a cold day when the sun was in the sky for the abbreviated hang time of a poorly punted football, and with a forbidding COVID season waiting in the long afternoon shadows.
The roots of the joyous celebration of the winter solstice, one of the oldest holidays in the human experience, have been subsumed by an avalanche of capitalist consumerism that has endeavored to steal the meaning of the day as brazenly as Emperor Constantine did so long ago. Not all of it is lost, however. Far from it.
“Celebration of the longest night of the year is everywhere,” I wrote in 2018. “The Hopi descendants of the Anasazi celebrate Soyal at the setting of the solstice sun with a ceremony of fires and dancing that lasts all night. In Iran, the winter solstice is celebrated as Shab-e Yalda, which means ‘Night of Birth,’ in which families and friends gather to read poems and feast. It is called Dong Zhi in China and Inti Raymi in Peru, and these celebrations are striking in their similarities. Wiccans and other practitioners of ancient witchcraft (a word they proudly own) celebrate the winter solstice as an affirmation of life itself as being sacred and interconnected.”
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It is a warm idea in a grim time, harmed only by the truth that gatherings nowadays are a game of dice with death. This winter, solstice is being celebrated small — for some, only within the individual heart — as we all endeavor to spray the horrors of this year back out into the universe from whence they came.
There is much horror to be rid of, and it is not over. The deep darkness on this Christmas Day is caused by far more than an annual celestial exercise. We confront a dwindling president reaching for open mutiny in a desperate and dangerous flail to retain power, even as he flexes that power to free his co-conspirators, and worse; among his latest pardons, the Blackwater butchers of Nisour. We confront a frozen Congress all but unresponsive to the plight of the people, and a ruthless and ever-worsening pandemic still burning unchecked among us. There is more than enough darkness to go around.
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Indeed, there are many flavors of bleak to be sampled from the spread laid out on this diminished holiday table.
Congress, subject to the ongoing cold-blooded tyranny of Mitch McConnell, finally vomited up a $900 billion COVID relief bill so thoroughly inadequate as to be deliberately insulting. Along with gossamer unemployment support and a paltry $600 paid to struggling individuals — I’m so old, I remember the last relief bill paid $1,200 to individuals and $500 per child for people making less than $75,000 a year — this newest bill provides virtually no support for struggling cities and states while once again packing the larder of the very wealthy and corporations who don’t need the help.
The only reason people could see that $600 to begin with is because Democrats agreed to cut any new relief funding for cities and states out of the bill. According to the towering lie of austerity, it’s the only way the country can afford to pay anything (Ask an F-35 if that’s true; don’t worry, they’re not busy). Democratic leadership had months to fight for the kind of relief bill that would actually provide, you know, relief. Instead, they capitulated at every turn, over and over again, as they leaned into their permanently flawed belief that Republicans will be nice to them next time.
If Georgia’s runoff elections next month do not go entirely for the Democrats, however, there will almost certainly be no “next time”; if one of those two contests is lost, this will probably be the last relief bill we see until the eve of the 2022 midterms, when political pressure once again forces Republicans to do the barest possible minimum (maybe). God only knows the state we will be in by then.
Trump, To the surprise of only those who haven’t paid attention, lobbed a bag of hand grenades into the middle of the process just as this small beer bill was nearing completion. After staying out of the conversation for weeks,the lamest duck abruptly demanded payments of $2,000 per individual, and threatened to veto the bill if this did not happen. He didn’t make this demand to help people — this is the same guy who, on the same day, enacted policy to strip tipped workers of more than $700 million per year — but to put McConnell and the GOP in a corner. It’s another loyalty test, but with daggers for teeth; Trump wants to see who will stand with him in this latest act of vandalism, because he’s making a list and checking it twice.
The relief bill is tied to the government shutdown bill, and Trump’s eruption has blown what was a done deal at least temporarily to bits. Some 14 million people are set to lose their unemployment benefits on Saturday, the eviction moratorium expires on New Years Eve, and absent a deal by Monday, the government will shut down on December 29. As of this writing, there is no certainty that any of this gets done before the roof caves in. Most of Congress, in point of fact, is not even in the city. Par for the course, literally: Trump himself has decamped for his golf club in Florida.
Of course, all this is equally the months-long doing of ghoul McConnell, who personally stripped the relief bill of provisions to ensure that employers provide paid sick leave to workers who get infected with COVID-19, because that is the perfect expression of his nature. Even in the face of this, the Democrats under Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer relentlessly continue playing from a frightened playbook that has been dogeared and discredited for 40 years.
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The paltry relief bill was announced just as a new and ominous COVID wind began blowing in from across the Atlantic. Great Britain, Nigeria and South Africa have pinpointed a new mutation of the virus that is reportedly just as lethal as the current ones but far more communicable. The TV news people have been at pains to say that this new mutation is not more dangerous than the current ones, which is nice, except the current ones have chopped down more than 330,000 souls already, in this country alone. With a hugely elevated communicability rate, how much more lethal do they really have to be?
Here, right here, is what happens when a pandemic is allowed to run wild. Will the new vaccines work on these new strains? Yes, but to a now-uncertain degree, and with an enormous caveat: The more this virus is allowed to wildfire its way through the populace, the more likely it is to mutate, and one of those mutations may wind up being resistant to the vaccine.
This, as the nation is traveling for the Christmas holiday after getting rocked by the spike caused by Thanksgiving travel. If these new strains get here — which they inevitably will, because COVID is COVID, and COVID always finds a way — it will almost surely be by way of air travel. In truth, it is entirely possible this new strain has already arrived, and is presently and covertly licking doorknobs in high-travel cities from coast to coast.
“The rapid series of events and escalating number of countries that suddenly closed their borders was reminiscent of the early frenzied days of the pandemic,” The New York Times reported on Monday, “when international travel ground to a halt. While most countries directed their restrictions on Britain, Saudi Arabia went even further in trying to halt the variant from gaining traction, announcing a one week ban on all international travel, according to the Saudi Press Agency.”
“Right now,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, “this variant in the U.K. is getting on a plane and flying to J.F.K.” On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandated that all incoming airline passengers from the U.K. must pass a COVID test to enter the country. No word on similar requirements being planned or set for passengers from Nigeria or South Africa.
Is Cuomo paranoid, or is he paranoid enough? Ask the last 10 months… and pause to reflect on all the unspeakably reckless Thanksgiving travel that took place before this day. It is Russian Roulette writ large, with a round in every other chamber, and in a country that for the love of all things should know better by now.
As for the people and their response to this broadening crisis? The majority have taken the required precautions to heart and are wearing masks, practicing social distancing, avoiding crowded places and staying home when possible … and then there are the Trump faithful, ever ready to participate in self-destructive spectacle in their undying effort to “own the libs.” If the COVID death rate in the states Trump won are any indication, these people appear entirely ready to pursue that goal right into the well of their own graves.
Case in point: Here is a video of “anti-maskers” invading a Target store in Arizona. In their eyes, they are patriots flinging themselves upon the gears of authoritarianism as represented by flimsy pieces of medical equipment. In truth, they are the living nightmare of every minimum wage retail worker who did not sign up to be the mask police in the face of aggressive right-wing ignorance, any more than they signed up to get sick and maybe die as a reward for coming to work in the first place. This kind of nonsense is happening nationwide, and while it certainly is not everybody doing it, it is enough to serve as continued grist for the COVID mill.
Will people like this be at your Christmas table today? They’re all going somewhere, some of them will be breathing virus onto their aunt’s special bread pudding, and such behavior is enough to keep this thing going ad infinitum, especially if and when these new and highly communicative strains make a home here.
The gift of the Magi, 2020 style.
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What, then, do we do?
I, as ever, turn to the poets with a candle in the gloom, and to one above all who bore witness to the nation when it transformed itself into a charnel house of violence, racism and hate more than 150 years ago:
Here is despair on paper, a weary eye encompassing lethal folly on the grandest possible scale, written by one who saw the same trains of the faithless we see today, the sorrow, the poor results of all and the plodding sordid crowds, the empty and useless years, the fear, the fathomless despair and self-doubt, and you, and me, and us, all intertwined in tragedy that seems to have no bottom. What good, amid all this, is hope? What good is anything at all?
Solstice is about reaching for the light in the darkness. Christmas — stripped of its gaudy commercialism — is about a new birth of hope in a beleaguered land. Hope, these days, must be honed to a simpler edge — a belief that the effort of hoping itself reaps its own rewards no matter the final outcome — and that hope is the light we reach for. That sort of hope may just be enough to bring us to the further shore, though it still be wreathed in darkness, when a combination of hard science and good sense perhaps gives us back some of what we have lost.
The dead cannot be replaced. There are hundreds of thousands of empty chairs at the table today, a truth fit to scald the numbness from all our hearts. The injured and the bereft, the damaged and the inconsolable, are the hard truth of this new breed of hope; it is the thinnest gruel for them above all. Yet it is what we have, our tattered rope across the chasm before us. We are together in the screaming solitude of this invidious passage, and we must keenly remember it. We must remember all of it.
The powerful play goes on, and if there is to be anything for us on that long-off day, we must all contribute a verse. If that verse is simply your living breath, so be it, and thank you. After all this and what is still to come, it is enough. It has to be.
This article has been updated.