Light in the winter

Psychologists don’t like to acknowledge this, but the science of the mind descends from the art of the mind, philosophy, and intertwined throughout are the priests, the art of mind and spirit. Seasonal affective disorder, or less seriously, winter blues, has always been a part of the human experience, long before Rosenthal et al (1984) first described Seasonal Affective Disorder.

This is the darkest time of year in the northern hemisphere. We are only getting about 9 ½ hours of daylight and that brings us down. The blue light at dawn penetrates our eyelids and our heavy blankets, prompts the pituitary gland to stop the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Our technology not only fails to overcome this phenomenon but it makes our situation worse. Screens – phones, televisions, computers – emit blue light and disrupt our sleep cycles. I use my phone as an alarm and I like having it by my bed because I live alone, so I have a blue light filter, a free app that I turn on before I go to sleep. It uses a color of my choice – orange, in my case – to neutralize the blue light coming from my phone. Mine is from GeeksLab but there are many options. The darkness drags us down, pulls on us to reduce our energy and activity levels. That isn’t sadness, but it is depression.

This is also the time of year when all of the world’s major religions have holidays that celebrate light and celebrate with light. Christians remember the birth of the light of the world and decorate everything with light. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and how one night’s worth of lamp oil lasted eight days. It’s not a major holiday in the Jewish calendar, but it gets a boost from coinciding with Christmas. Muslims celebrate Milad un Nabi, the Prophet’s Birthday, on a variable schedule but typically during the darker months, with exchanges of gifts and by decorating the mosque with lights. Hindus will celebrate Pongal by worshiping the sun, burning useless household items, and gathering as families and communities. Buddhists have already celebrated Bodhi Day, the enlightenment of Buddha, which was marked by the rise of the morning star.

Light and the gathering of communities, the perfect responses to what we now call seasonal depression. Forget the clinical aspect and its attempt to control everything for a moment and realize that this is just the normal human condition, the natural cycles of birth, death, and rebirth to which all life, even human, is subject.

When I get to talk about religion with persons who do not have a faith tradition, I often hear that religion is something imposed from the outside, by dictatorial leaders. Every so often, someone pulls a Godwin’s Law stunt. I have fun with those. No, my priest is not Hitler, and like most Americans, I choose my church based on what I believe, rather than seeking someone to tell me what to believe. Parishioners leave and whole churches split over the most ridiculous disagreements. The relationship between church and person is fragile and the bond easily broken.

This time of year is what I love about religion, though. In our cold, in our darkness, religion, by many names, pulls us into community, brings us into light and warmth. We are called to love God, but that is simply the inevitable reciprocity, our share of the relationship. In its varied names and traditions, religion is unified in its service of humans, unifies us with each other, unifies us with good and God.


Rosenthal N.E., Sack, D.A., Gillin J.C., Lewy. A.J., Goodwin, F.K., Davenport, Y., Mueller, P.S., Newsome, D.A., & Wehr, T.A. (1984) Seasonal affective disorder: A description of the syndrome and preliminary findings with light therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41: 72-80.