Darkness & Light: Reflections on the Winter Season

By Rebecca Coates-Finke, JFS Teen and Young Adult Mental Health Counselor

Today, the time between sunrise and sunset in Seattle is about eight and a half hours. Tomorrow, we will have the longest night of our year, before the sun slowly begins to stay with us a few more minutes at a time. Last Sunday night, those of us who celebrate began lighting Chanukah candles, while the streets of our city brighten against the dark with string lights through the trees and streetlights pressing against the rain. I’ve started to receive targeted advertisements for solar lights to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and journals are publishing articles to remind us that many are lonely, stressed, and alienated this holiday season. I witness the juxtaposition of the cold temperatures, increasing darkness, and isolation against the brighter and brighter lights, music in a major key, and syrupy sweet tales of love and family.  

Awareness about the sadness that can accompany this time of year has increased recently, particularly as people have adapted to holiday time during the pandemic. Even so, as a Teen and Young Adult Mental Health Counselor, I hear people taken aback every year by their feelings of disillusionment, sadness, and isolation. For young adults or teens who have not had as much experience with the wintertime blues, the contrast between their difficult feelings and the brightness around them might feel particularly bewildering.  

So what is it about this time of year that encourages these conflicting experiences?   

Traditions and rituals can create containers of safety. People build predictability in their lives to feel secure. At the same time, repetition can feel like a trap. For those who experience the decreasing light and holiday season as difficult and isolating, the repetition of these familiar patterns can foster the feeling of inevitability, can encourage thoughts like: “I will always feel this way, every winter, no matter what.” The sameness of it all can feel inescapable. This can feel particularly true for people for whom the holiday season evokes memories of difficult times, and for those who are grieving good times that are no longer possible.  

In reality, no two moments can ever truly be the same. No two years are ever the same. When we recognize patterns, experience that sense of déjà vu, it is our body’s way of trying to help us feel safe by keeping us contained. That is our bodies choosing a hard feeling we’ve felt many, many times before over the unknown. It can be very difficult to disrupt that choice, but it is possible. A first step is to recognize in what story we may be stuck, so that we can identify possibilities for change.  

I myself have felt some of this sadness of the season, and I realized that I need to actively embrace and seek out the differences and specificities of this year. Growing up, I always learned that we would light an additional candle every night of Chanukah, increasing our light as the darkness of winter grew. Recently, I learned of another tradition, which is to start with eight candles and light one less each night. At first, this idea of changing tradition felt frightening to me. I am used to seeing the glowing light of the candles increase each day of the holiday, in contrast to the decreasing sunlight. This year, however, I think I will give it a try. I am curious to let myself embrace the darkness as it comes, to attune this ritual with the turning of the Earth. It is time to turn a tradition on its head so that I can experience it as new, again.  

It can be a daunting task to alter tradition, while holding onto some of the safety that we need. Remember that you are not alone in this journey, and there are others with whom you can connect about what can be a difficult time of year. As the Teen and Young Adult Mental Health Counselor at JFS, I have openings to work with young people ages 13-30. Please reach out. We can find creativity and change together. 

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