December 21 is the Winter Solstice; it is the longest night of the year. From here forward, the nights get shorter and days get longer. The winter solstice marks the beginning of the solar calendar, and even without religious connotations, the day is celebrated across the globe in various ways.
Among ancient European people groups, this was the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun. The celebration of the Yule log dates to a pre-Christian festival in honor of the Norse god Jul (sometimes spelled Juul). In ancient Poland, the Solstice celebration was an annual day of forgiveness and community. In Iran, people acknowledge the Solstice as an important day in the balance between light and dark by maintaining a fire all night long that will lend to the dominance of light in the darkness. Ancient Rome celebrated it as a day of equality among masters and slaves.
In all of these observances, the Solstice is a celebration or acknowledgment of something good occurring. In the homeless community and among service providers, however, it is the day we remember those we have lost.
People living on the street face long, cold nights in cities around the world because of the ubiquitous lack of adequate shelter and affordable housing. The nights are the most dangerous times for people living outside because of the low temperatures and other vulnerabilities they face. To that end, the night of the Solstice is the longest, and in some ways, the most dangerous night of the year.
Today we will honor those we’ve lost since the Solstice last year in a memorial service. Each person’s name will be read aloud in remembrance, and we will set out an empty tray at the lunch table for each person who, because of death, is no longer able to eat with us.
For millennia this day has been a celebration or acknowledgment of good things. For us, on the other hand, today is a solemn day of remembrance. In some way, the goodness we celebrate is that these people are no longer wanting for home. They are no longer struggling to survive on the streets, ignored by most people, forgotten by society, and called a “problem” in our community. They have entered their eternity, no longer having to question what they will face that day. They are…home.
In a few days, most of us will gather in the evening of the 24th or the morning of the 25th to celebrate Christmas with friends and family. We will have dinners and presents, fireplaces and stockings, hot chocolate and sausage balls. Whatever our traditions, we will indulge in them, and it is okay that we do. We are in the fortunate position of having somewhere to stay and people to rely on. I’ve mentioned before that THE cause of homelessness is not addiction, mental illness, or even greed, but the lack of a support network.
The overwhelming majority of the people in our nation are living in a stable housing situation. It is a minority of our population that must face living on the streets, under bridges, and in tents for survival. That minority needs our help; they need YOUR help.
Tonight, across America, churches, organizations, and other places will open their doors as a warming shelter for those people. A warming shelter isn’t a place to live or necessarily even rest, but it is a place to get warm on a cold night.
Others will spend their time off from work volunteering in a shelter or soup kitchen to give back. Many will give their time during other parts of the year as well.
Some people will give their money to support the agencies that are making a difference for these people every day.
On this longest night of the year, this Winter Solstice, celebrate it, acknowledge it, or ignore that this day is anything special if you wish, but join us in remembering those who no longer have the opportunity to do the same.