The duality of darkness and light is one of the oldest...

The duality of darkness and light is one of the oldest dichotomies in human existence. Credit: Getty Images/Xuanyu Han

Night creeps closer as the calendar pages turn.

Commuters, early and late, measure daylight's withdrawal in the grind toward the winter solstice. Those of us blessed to be able to work in front of a window reach for the desk lamp a little earlier, and a little earlier.

A year in a life is a dance between light and dark, one always on the ascent, the other always on the wane. Many of our cultures have paid careful heed to that dance, which sometimes dictates the collective mood. The longer the night, the more time troublesome spirits have to walk the Earth, a belief embraced by, among others, ancient Germans, Zoroastrians, and Celts. The winter solstice itself, the day of our longest darkness and shortest light, signified nothing less than the death — and then rebirth — of the sun.

The duality of darkness and light is one of the oldest dichotomies in human existence, and one of our hoariest tropes. It is celebrated and explored in music, literature, film, art, and dance. It is elemental to our great religions. For centuries, navigating darkness and light was essential for our survival. The light of a fire didn't just ward off an evil spirit, it also kept a predator at bay, and its warmth prevented us from freezing.

That wariness of the dark is etched in our DNA. We leave a light on when we're out. A well-lit street is a comfort, for driving and especially for walking. We note with caution a dead streetlight. Who among us has not been in an unfamiliar town, perhaps on a trip, the night descending, searching for a place to eat or ask a question, when we find ourselves drawn to a brightly lit storefront, an establishment bathed in the light that signifies warmth and welcome and company.

We're most of the way now toward our shortest day, less than a month to go, which means that as we walk or drive or ride we have plenty of time to contemplate the darkness, plenty of time to notice which streets are more embracing and which are foreboding. And in the catalog of this year is lodged a curious observation: Things seem a little brighter. By which I mean that even before Thanksgiving arrived, there seemed to be more holiday lights out than usual.

I would have said it was just my imagination except that others apparently have noticed, too. I've heard similar comments from some family and colleagues. Not a tidal wave of extra lights, mind you, but enough to be noticed. A house here and there, and over there a place of retail.

Never content to make an observation without exploring the cause, I wonder what is going on. Is there a social media group devoted to Christmas lights that's exhorting its members to get with it already? Did warm weekend weather inspire early light-hanging rather than a long walk, yard work, or a game of touch football? Is it pure coincidence?

Or is it perhaps that some of us are lighting our lights earlier because we need it, because they bring us comfort and joy. Or because they reflect some nascent optimism.

It's been a long year. But we're emerging from a divisive election, inflation might be easing its grip, the pandemic might be in our rearview. And yet, another election looms, recession might lie ahead, and a resurgence is possible. And we're still navigating newly difficult relationships with friends and family, some of our kids still struggle in school, our nation is still in some sort of funk. And the darkness grows. But light is defiance. And optimism must be kindled.

And so perhaps we put a candle in the window. Because we know the song. We won't lose our way, as long as we can see the light.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.