A Calendar for Those Who Struggle through Long Winter Nights
Jessica Kantrowitz

January 9th: Boston sunset 4:30 pm

For Now We Stumble: Soon We Will Stride

“There was a mountain that I was high up on,
way high up on it ’til I came back down.
There was a sun sliding down the horizon
where late shadows grew on the ground.

“Here in the city harder than iron
Lost children gather like bottles in bars.
There is a pain that awaits us, unchanging.
It hangs in our breasts and our stars.

“Light inaccessible where are you shining?
Where do you burn and whose face do you warm?
Out in the fields we are ready for finding —
smoldering stars waiting to be reborn.”

~Jason Harrod, Out in the Fields

Road to Giverny in Winter, by Claude Monet

Today I mark the return of the Boston sunset to 4:30 pm. The last time we had a sunset so late was on November 6th, 2020, and it will not be this late again until November 2021. Four-thirty still seems so early, but it is nineteen minutes past the earliest sunset one month ago. The month between December 8th and January 9th was a long one, for me personally, for my country, and for the world. So much has happened, and yet it feels like each day is the same, plodding through from sunrise to sunset, and into the long winter evenings. But there is a difference in our afternoons now. Nineteen minutes seems like such small progress to report. But it is progress.

I’m moving slowly, myself, recovering from foot surgery on one foot and trying to coax the other leg’s kneecap back into its track through physical therapy. Each day comes with its dozen tasks to care for my body: Lotions to rub in, gentle massaging to break down scar tissue, strengthening and stretching exercises, vitamins, hydration, proper posture, rest. In between I try to get some writing done. The progress is so slow as to be almost unnoticeable day to day, like the slow advance of the sunset. There seems like such small progress to report. But there is progress.

Tonight as you watch the sun set upon another hard, strange day in this hard, strange year, think of your body and your spirit as part of the swift, slow progression of the earth and the sun, following a rhythm that is both utterly wild and totally predictable. Think of the winter and the darkness as a time of building strength, of gathering resources. Think of yourself, though you stumble forward day by day, as preparing for greater steps, for a longer stride. The winter is long, but it will not last forever. The light is returning.


Further resources and reading
If you want to look up the sunset times for your own town, this is the site that I use.
Jason Harrod, quoted above, is a singer-songwriter whose music means a lot to me, especially in the winter. You can find his music here. Another singer-songwriter team that has been getting me through is Over the Rhine. You can find their music here.
I write more about both the winter and depression in my book, The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression.

These are the twelve milestones I’ll be marking this season. Scroll down for reflections on previous dates:

December 8th: Sunset dips to its earliest in Boston at 4:11 pm

December 21st: Winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Boston sunset 4:14 pm

January 9th: Boston sunset 4:30 pm

January 22nd: Boston sunset 4:45 pm

February 2nd: Boston sunset 5 pm

February 14th: Boston sunset 5:15 pm

February 26th: Boston sunset 5:30 pm

March 1st: First day of meteorological spring

March 10th: Boston sunset 5:45 pm

March 14th: Boston sunset 6:49 pm

March 20th: Spring Equinox, first day of astronomical spring

March 23rd: Boston sunset 7 pm


Previous dates

December 8th: Sunset dips to its earliest in Boston at 4:11PM

“A mist rises as the sun goes down
And the light that’s left forms a kind of crown
The earth is bread, the sun is wine
It’s the sign of a hope that’s ours for all time.”

~Bruce Cockburn, Gavin’s Woodpile

Even though the winter solstice isn’t for another two weeks, the earliest sunsets of the year in the Northern Hemisphere start now. In Boston that means the sun sets at 4:11 for a few days before it creeps forward again. If you are inside you start to notice the falling dark around 3 PM. Some people seem to adjust to this fairly easily, while others, myself included, struggle to function normally when nighttime begins in the middle of the afternoon.

The past several years I’ve put together a calendar for myself and my friends, to help mark the days, the darkness, and the light. It’s a combination of making it through this hard time and being open to the wisdom and lessons that we can only learn in the dark. This time will not last forever, but these days are part of our beautiful, sorrowful, joyful, hard lives as well, and I want to live in the present as well as in hope for the future.

Further resources and reading
You can listen to the Bruce Cockburn song I quote above here. The album that it’s from, In The Falling Dark, is one of my favorites of his.

December 21st: Winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Boston sunset 4:14 pm

The Light is Returning, and Winter is Already Almost a Third Over (Depending on How You Look at It)

“Q: What’s the difference between meteorological and astronomical winter?

“A: Meteorologists define “winter” as the three coldest months of the year: December, January, and February. So to them, winter begins on December 1st and ends at the end of February (February 29th in 2020). And the first day of meteorological spring is considered March 1st, with the three months of spring being March, April, and May.

“Astronomers, on the other hand, define “winter” in the Northern Hemisphere by when the noontime Sun reaches its farthest point south in the sky; or when the Sun’s rays shine down from a point directly overhead as seen from the tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23.5 degrees south), known as the winter solstice. That happens on December 21 (or 22, depending on the year). And it continues as such until the direct solar rays shine down on the equator at the vernal or Spring Equinox on March 19th (in 2020 — the date and time of spring changes from year to year).

“In short, the seasons you are familiar with, by the calendar, are “astronomical,” and the seasons that your meteorologist chats about on the evening news are “meteorological.” So to them, spring begins March 1st!”

~From the online Farmer’s Almanac

It’s the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, but here in Boston the sunset has already inched back up to 4:14PM, three minutes later than its earliest on December 8th. In astronomical measurement, this is also the first day of winter. I’ve always found it encouraging that every day of winter is longer than the day before. The cold and snow, icy salty streets, too-packed Boston parking has just begun, but the descent into darkness has ended. The return to light has already begun.

I also find it encouraging that to meteorologists winter started on December 1st, and will end on March 1st. March isn’t so far away. I can make it. We can make it. You are not alone, and this will not last forever.

If you have a candle, light it at sunset tonight, and acknowledge the longest night of the year. If you don’t have a candle, maybe just stand near the window and nod a greeting to the night. If you want, you can use these words:

Welcome, darkness, and the coming cold.
Welcome, lamplight, candlelight, and firelight
Welcome, long, dark evenings and late dawns
Welcome, slower pace and slower energy
Welcome to every feeling in my heart, my spirit, and my body
whether pleasant, painful, or complicated
I make room for you
I make room for myself
In gentleness
And in hope

See you back here on January 9th, when the sunset has inched its way back to 4:30PM in Boston.


Further resources and reading
If you want to look up the sunset times for your own town, this is the site that I use.
This is the online Farmer’s Almanac — I’ll let you judge for yourself how accurate its predictions are!
If you are a Christian or appreciate liturgy, you might like Phyllis Tickle’s Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime.
I write more about both the winter and depression in my book, The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression.