In our modern society, many are privileged enough to live in homes filled with electric lights and central heating, and we place less significance on the burdens of winter, with generally less fear of the scarcity to come. But we still celebrate the tenacity of life. We incorporate the old customs even as we’ve added new beliefs and started new traditions, and seamlessly combine religion, tradition, science and myth. We still put evergreens on doors and in living rooms, spend long nights shared with family and loved ones, share food and drink, and celebration. And of course, we still see this, in many cultures, as a season of rebirth, not just a New Year, but a time of miraculous endurance, and an event marking the beginning of our salvation and delivery out of bleak despair. All of it celebrated here, and now, because this is the day the Sun starts to come back.
Stars rule the night. They are more than just windows into an infinite cosmos, or keys to the history of our own world. In a more tangible sense, the stars provide humanity with a roadmap, establishing time and place. Long before artificial lights poisoned our view of the night sky, and before human industry occupied all wakeful hours, mankind looked to the stars to understand the cycle of seasons, birth and death of livestock, feast and famine. The skies of the ancients were filled with stories and myth, but also predictability and mathematics. Egyptians had developed a 365-day calendar by 3500 BCE. On the other side of the world, the Mayans started a calendar in 3114 BCE with a 13-year Baktun cycle wherein each annual Haab cycle lasted 365 days. This is remarkable accuracy, given that they were the result of only long-term naked-eye observational astronomy.
Tying astronomy to the daily grind, one of the most important days of the year is the winter solstice, also called mid-winter’s night, and in the Northern Hemisphere, that day is upon us. December 21 will be the day with the fewest hours of daylight, and the longest night, of 2017. A direct result of Earth’s axial tilt, the specific length of the night is highly dependent on latitude, but in all cases, its a low point for light. The name “solstice” literally means “stationary sun” – it is this day when the sun stops its movement to the south, momentarily pauses, and then moves north again (as viewed day-by-day, at sunset or sunrise and marking the Sun’s position on the horizon). Numerous cultures built monuments to mark this point. Northern Europe is dotted with evidence from late neolithic and Bronze Age cultures who built huge stone observational tools to mark the Sun’s location on this day.
It is a time for celebration, but also of dread. The Sun will reverse its direction and the days will lengthen – surely a symbol of birth, renewal, and an indicator of new beginnings and a new year. However, the next 6 weeks mark deep winter, that period of the year that combines dark nights and the coldest temperatures of the year. The solstice marks the beginning of a time of scarcity, and starvation. It is perhaps an example of the Epicurian ethos, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Livestock is slaughtered, both to avoid having to feed them over the winter, and to provide stores for lean times ahead. The granaries are full from the recent harvest, and summer wine and ale are just coming into their fermented prime. With plenty on hand, and unsure times ahead, it represents one last time to celebrate, reveling in the hope that the Sun’s reversal promises.
And celebrate we do. Evergreen plants – pines, spruces, holly, mistletoe – have for millenia been honored for their ability to stay green and resilient through the cold months. Northern cultures have celebrated the duality of hope and fear, in celebrations like the 12-day Scandinavian Jul (“Yule”). It’s a time to look forward to planting season, to rejoice in the Sun’s rebirth, to celebrate the start of a New Year, but also to burn the Yule log (originally a whole tree) for the full 12-day celebration, symbolically warding off the darkness and metaphorically bridging the harsh winter months to come, in anticipation of spring.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, God Jul, Io Saturnalia… Enjoy the Solstice, friends! Happy Holidays, whatever they may be, to you and your families!
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