Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on our planet. Among many things, today neo-Druids celebrate the returning of the sun at henges throughout the British Isles, but most particularly at Stonehenge.
(NOTE: I originally wrote this in 2015. I’m sending it out again in celebration of the Solstice, but I am making myself a promise that I will post more often on my blog, so perhaps next year it will be a different posting about the fascination of the Solstice.)
But the Winter Solstice happens all over the Northern Hemisphere and is celebrated in many different ways. Christmas, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Festivus (thank you, Jerry Seinfeld), all base their festivals and celebrations on the Winter Solstice. You may note that the date, December 21, doesn’t seem to match up precisely exactly to the celebrations. Well, calendars drift over time (the Earth takes more or less – which is where a lot of the drift comes from – 365 and 1/4 days to travel around the sun). In another post – someday – I may even go into how humans created calendars and why (other living creatures either have internal calendars and/or clocks or do not seem to find the need to know that they’re running away from that bear on 10:35 am on November 3). It is probably in this world we’re attempting to live that even while (whew!) the earth moving around the sun may precess a bit over time, it still hits the point where the North Pole is farthest away from the sun every year on the 21st. At its simplest, this means that the day time (when the sun is illuminating a wedge of the planet) is the shortest of the year, while the night of the 21st is the longest period of darkness of the year. (NOTE: The Southern Hemisphere has its Winter Solstice in June of the calendar the world is currently using – the December 21st date is the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, which simply means the longest daylight hours and shortest nighttime hours).
And that shortest day business is why we “celebrate” the Winter Solstice. In this context, “celebrate” means doing our animistic magical best to make the sun come back.
Which is what the Winter Solstice has always been about. When we were first getting started as a species, perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps the immediate, the now, of life was all that could matter. Can we run down that gazelle? Are these roots edible, not poisonous, let alone palatable? Is that fruit ripe yet and have the birds and the chimpanzees left us enough? Is that highly smelly (and they are) lion we know is napping on the other side of the hillside going to wake up hungry or can we stay here for another sleep? But after many thousands of years, we began to grow things on our own instead of merely finding them. We began to raise the sweeter-natured (and dumber) babies of various kinds of useful animals to have a portable pantry instead of always having to go out and find something to eat. And we began to notice that during the autumn of the year, the sun spent less time every day shining down on us. More, the farther north we wandered, the shorter the day, the longer the night during the fall.
And, worst of all, at some time during a period of time that came to be known as a month (meaning then and now the circuit of the moon around the earth), the name of which month came to be known as December (much, much, much, much later – and note it means in Latin the tenth month, not the twelfth and that, too, we’ll get into in a post about calendars), the sun seemed as if it was going to disappear completely, that it was going to keep on spending less time above the horizon and more below until it never came back. Never. Came. Back. Imagine that, if you can or will. The people (not the Celts or the Druids by the way) who raised the henges, the priests whose job it was to bless crops and domestic animals, the populations wandering ever northward as the ice sheets receded, were pretty good jack-leg, practical astronomers, but they had no way of knowing that the sun appeared and disappeared simply because the earth rotated on an axis and revolved around that sun. The didn’t know that the sun wasn’t doing the dancing, the disappearing and reappearing act, their own solid earth was. In growing panic, they would watch the sun shine less and less each day. All the Gods help us, it might at some point, perhaps because of the sinfulness of human beings (that has never changed), not come back at all. And they were definitely smart enough to realize that without the sun nothing on earth could survive.
We mustn’t think that because the sun always came back no matter what that these tribes of human beings were silly or stupid. After all, in this 21st century there were quite a few people who believed the world would come to an end when the particular long-count calendar the so-called experts were interpreting ended (ah, that would be this morning about 4:00 a.m. in 2012) and we’re, after all, 21st century humans living in a highly technological civilization. And we must remember, too, that life was usually short and a generation was considered (and still is for that matter) to be about 25 years. Even with bards and priests and all those trained to remember the history of the tribe and the knowledge that had been gleaned over many generations, the memory faded of the days when there were no priests praying throughout the longest night so the sun would peep over the horizon again. The priests had always prayed, always danced, always sung, begging the sun to come back, and it would always be necessary. (This was a fairly handy situation for the priests, to my cynical (realistic?) eyes, since it certainly meant for job security for those priests.)
We don’t actually know what the huge stone circles were for. The tribes who made them are long gone and their function and structure changed over time as new tribes came in and took over the henges (which is what the British call the stone circles). But there are many human-made monuments, monoliths, and cut-outs in certain hills (called granges in Celtic Ireland) all over the world (except in many cases, for reasons that shall be left as an exercise for the class, immediately around the equator where the monuments seem to our eyes to be designed more for the measuring of star movement) whose function makes no sense to us until we watch the moment of sunrise on the day after the Solstice and see a beam of light hitting one particular spot in the monument. The moment the sun comes back. The moment of relief, of success, of validation of nights of prayer, of dance, of songs of praise. It is really a several-day vigil, for the Solstice itself is the longest night and shortest day. And the monuments are, if not designed so, definitely able to show the incremental increase in daylight after the Solstice each day. After perhaps a week, the priests would be able to announce, in perfect truth, that the sun was coming back and that in a few cycles of the moon it would be time to plant once more. They would also, of course, announce that their prayers and the sacrifices of the tribe were the reason for this bounty. The great god behind the sun was pleased.
One of these days, one of these millenia, we hope many millenia from now, the sun may change from a beneficent god who makes life possible on our whirling ball of water and earth into something different. It may explode. It may become red and colder, making the earth unfit for habitation unless (and this too is possible) we have changed to fit the new circumstances (we have done so before). It may wink out one day. Stars do that, and our sun is merely a star among the billions of stars in our galaxy, amidst the billions of galaxies in our universe. But until that day, the Winter Solstice will happen in the Northern Hemisphere every year, just as it does six months later in the Southern Hemisphere every year, and the sun will come back to make spring possible, to make food possible, to make life possible. And the winter will be gone, one more time.
So this day is a marker of hope, still and forever while we live only here on this planet and are as we are, utterly dependent on the sun for everything. Everything. Think about that for a moment, this round pale ball we should never look at directly that rises every day and sets every day as our solid-feeling planet (okay, except in certain places like California that wiggle every once a while) rotates and revolves, is the only reason this ball we live on is a planet, the only reason it has water, the only reason it can grow things, the only reason that we exist, that anything on Earth exists.
And we should, I think, even in our sophistication, give a prayer of thanks that this be so. Religions throughout the history of the world have done so. Almost all of them have called the celebration of the Winter Solstice a feast of light in one way or the other. In Jewish tradition, there is Hanukkah, a celebration of a time when the perpetual lamp in the Inner Temple could have gone out but did not because of a miracle. In Christianity, there are many references to light and the returning of light. The Christmas tree began as a way of celebrating Christ’s eternal power and meaning. The evergreen does not lose its leaves in the winter and the lights we put on it symbolize “the light of the world.” Christ, who was born, or so say the priests, on a day less than a week after the Solstice when it could be and was proved that the sun was coming back for another year has always been associated with light. (That Jesus was probably born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks, thus, at lambing time, is merely a more likely supposition and has very little to do with the symbolism of the timing of his birth. Many religious scholars and historians say that the Christian Church moved the feast of Christ’s birth to Solstice in order to pre-empt the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was yet another religious feast day celebrating the Solstice.) Other religions have similar feasts. And our old friend the Mayan long-count calendar begins and ends on the Winter Solstice.
(Just to be clear, the Mayans, who were apparently brilliant astronomers, had many calendars that counted different cycles, some as short as a few months, some as long as millions of years. The long-count calendar that got some people in such an uproar a few years ago measured a kind of medium-long cycle. Some of these different measurings of time began and ended on the Winter Solstice. I don’t know if all do, and at least one source I’ve read said the ending of each calendar was for symmetry’s sake and the beginning of each calendar’s measuring period would be a Solstice primarily for convenience because this is a date easy to pin down. I know very little about the reasons for these differently-counted calendars of theirs, and anthropologists, while learning more all the time, are still more or less at the beginning of figuring this out. Wikipedia has a very interesting discussion of Mayan calendars. Just use the “search” function.)
For the time being (and I recommend without stint W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being” about what happens to each of us during and because of Christmas, which is my own tradition of celebrating the return of light to the world), the Solstice is happening once more. The sun will come back after this shortest night of the year. The world will rumble on and most of us will try to make the best of it and some of us, sadly, will still try to make the worst of it. In honor of the Solstice, in honor of all the people throughout the history of our species who have prayed and danced and sung the sun back above the horizon, this year I will try to see past the Christmas tree and the presents and the special foods and the candles and twinkly sparkly lights all over the place to a calmer center point where the grand dance of our home bringing back the sun to warm us and nurture us continues. And I will give praise and thanks.