Thoughts Upon a Solstice, Redux


Henge_1 (Photo credit: tracko_aus)

I published this blog originally for Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere version) in 2012, and I think it may be worth another look from any or all of you who follow my blog this year too.  So I’m republishing it . . . .

In any event, I wish anybody reading this (well, in reality I wish this for people who don’t read or follow my blog too) a truly happy holiday season and the best of new years.  And, remember, if you live in the southern hemisphere, just put this aside for six months and read it in June.  Be well.

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; while others who may have listened too much to strange folk misinterpreting the Mayan long-count calendar are in their various ways and for their various reasons relieved or disappointed that the world still seems to be somehow wobbling along.  Perhaps some of them, neo-Druidic or neo-Mayan or whatnot, arose from frantic prayer this morning with the feeling that they saved the world from oblivion.  [Remember, I wrote this in a year when some folk were convinced that the Mayan long-count calendar was coming to an end.  It wasn’t.  It didn’t.]

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular (Photo credit: jacilluch)

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.  (Not to ignore the Southern Hemisphere–anyone reading this in Australia just would change the time of year by about six months and the direction from north to south to be in the same situation.  I am, unfortunately having never visited Australia or, for that matter, anywhere below the Equator, a bit Northern Hemisphere-centric.)

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), 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.) [again, I wrote this 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, in my cynical (realistic?) eyes, since it certainly meant for job security.)

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on th...

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 them over.  But there are many human-made monuments, monoliths, and cut-outs in certain hills (called, I think, 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.


Newgrange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.  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.

candlelit Christmas tree

candlelit Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(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  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.  I recommend anyone interested to click on the link “Mayan long-count calendar” in this essay for more information.)

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.



September (Photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi)

Today is the second day of September.  Thus begins my favorite time of year.  To be more precise, thus begins my year.  From here on to the end of the calendar year are all the holidays and celebrations I truly love, from friends’ birthdays and anniversaries to my own birthday, which for me begins the holiday season, to Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas and finishing up with New Year‘s Eve.  Which last holiday is a kind of extra gift, a second chance at a new start on the year.

There’s rather a long history of starting the year at harvest time.  Or when the buds burst in spring.  Our current (and arbitrary) date for the New Year comes about partially as a result of calendar slippage over many thousands of years.  Humans started counting days and seasons in order to know when best to plant, cultivate, harvest, hunt, butcher and so forth.  It’s all about food, after all.  But the methods that they used didn’t quite match up with the realities.  If you count by the phases of the moon (the Lunar Calendar), it takes a few days less for the moon to make a full 12 circuits of the Earth than it does for the Earth to move around the sun, so in just a few years, the lunar months are not matching up with the realities of the yearly cycle.  So, even though the Lunar Calendar is the easiest method, most farming cultures started to use solstice reckoning.  This was actually more important to farmers, because how could humans be absolutely certain that when the sun disappeared on the winter solstice that it would come back.  The measuring of the slight incremental increases in daylight after the winter solstice became one of the first and most important jobs for the priests of a culture, and their magic spells and potions, their auguries, in fact, much of their worth, as measured by the culture in which they lived and worked, was their guarantee that the sun would come back and when it would do so.  Of course, the sun always comes back (or at least it has so far), so it was a pretty safe bet.  While I’m sure the priestly caste provided reassurance and emotional and psychological help, they were always basically conning the populace.

Nevertheless, the actual time from one winter solstice to the next is slightly more (about a fourth of a day or six hours) than the 365 days it was counted to be.  So, once again, the calendar kept slipping and after quite a few years, one was planting, technically, in July (not so-called back then, I’m sure) or some such.  (I probably got the slippage backward.  This sort of thing is not quite my forte.  I would have not done really well as one of the priests who did the measurements.)  This was solved, or at least temporarily resolved, by various kings, popes, heads of state and church, who would declare that as of such and such a date, the decree would be that that date was, well, a different date, and things would march more or less in step for a while.  We have historical records of such happenings, such as when the Julian Calendar, which was getting to be about two weeks off, was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar (I think–as I’ve pointed out long before, this blog becomes a lot less fun when I lose my amateur standing by looking things up), which happened during George Washington’s (and a lot of other people’s) lifetime and even now historians are perplexed about the date on which he was born.  At some point during this giddy moving about of dates, some genius (obviously neither Julius Caesar or Pope Gregory) came up with the idea of a leap day and a leap year, which we still use to account for that pesky extra six hours the Earth requires to circuit the sun every year.

Gregorian calendar

Gregorian calendar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every four years, our calendar gives us an extra day (six hours times four equals 24, which takes care of it), except for (and this I really should look up) some years that end in a double zero which do not have leap days because that extra six hours every year is not exact and the math still doesn’t come out right if you have leap years every four years.  Or something like that.  Anybody who would like to know the real deal is invited to look it up on Wikipedia or Scientific American or whatnot.

In any event, I’m trying to determine why we have New Year’s Day on a seemingly arbitrary day.  After all, if a culture believes that the new year starts when the sun comes back, then why not the day after the Winter Solstice?  Of course, for one thing, those first days after the Winter Solstice have exceedingly small incremental gains in daylight, difficult for early astronomers, let alone the average farmer, to measure.  So, instead, the date of the new year would be the first date any fool could tell that the sun was spending more time above the horizon than on the date of the Winter Solstice.  Or, about a week later.  Since New Year’s Day is 10 days after the solstice on our modern calendar, the rest of the days probably can be accounted for by calendar slippage, discussed above.

Whew.  So now we can get back to why not just me, but a lot of people through history, have started the year not after the Winter Solstice, but either in the spring when planting takes place or, slightly less logically, in the fall when harvest takes place.  All, of course, without looking anything up.  (This may not work out, but let’s see how far we get.)  First, it makes a kind of deeply human sense to start the year when every other living thing is–the connection to the burgeoning of life on the Earth is palpable and heart-stirring.  The Earth shakes off her winter torpor, the snow starts to melt, the rains come again, the streams swell, and all the greenery makes a new appearance.  And before long, the world seems filled with babies, everything hatching or being born at an early enough time to give the new animal the longest possible chance to grow up, find food and get ready for the next winter.  One culture that we do know of who started their year in the spring (my favorite early culture) was that of the Celts, whose Beltane holiday celebrated the spring with bonfires, foolishness and fertility festivals.  It came about in May and later sort of settled into being May Day.  (This holiday, by the way, was and still is, I think, a favorite in the British Isles, but has lost a step or two because of its latter-day association with the Soviet Union.)  I suppose that in the British Isles, particularly as the ice sheets receded and people began to populate it once again, May was indeed the start of spring, as it is in high mountain areas such as my home in Estes Park.  Later on, as the Gulf Stream reached its present course, spring came much earlier in many areas in Britain.

It is my understanding that the Celts used a more or less Lunar Calendar with the year starting in spring, in May; however, they used the huge calendars, the henges (the most famous of which is Stonehenge) at least partially, or so say the scientists, to determine exactly that moment after the Winter Solstice that the sun starts coming back.   Therefore, as often happened in sophisticated societies (“sophistication” here does not mean Noel Coward ennui, but rather has an anthropological meaning combining several aspects of human culture), there would probably be more than one calendar running concurrently, one used by priests (in this case Druids), one used by farmers, and so forth.


stonehenge (Photo credit: nyaa_birdies_perch)

Two notes on the above paragraphs:  One, the Celts did NOT build the henges.  They were the huge project of tribes (some of which are called by us because of items found in their graves the Beaker People) that lived in the British Isles long before the Celts came and which the Celts drove out or intermarried among (a nice euphemistic way to talk about such things as bride capture, which term itself is a euphemism for rape) to take over the land.  Two, some of what I’ve read indicates that the Druids were, themselves, part of a slightly different culture than the Celts.  In other words, the Celts migrated to their various new homelands all over Europe, finishing up in Ireland, the farthest away from their legendary homeland, which was probably in the steppes just north of the Black Sea or in Turkey somewhere (big scientific hoo ha over this which has not been resolved) without having Druids per se, just the normal shamans and priests.  How or where the Druids came is unknown.  Well, at least I don’t know it.

Oh, and scientifically, I should be saying that what really happens at Winter Solstice (or its opposite, the Summer Solstice) is that the Earth reaches the apogee (or is it perigee?) of its tilt and begins to tilt back, thus bringing the northern hemisphere more directly under the sun’s rays.  But that’s not how it feels to humans living on the planet, even today.  We may know (through the efforts of scientists throughout history) that it is the Earth’s tilt that causes the seasons, but our perception tells us otherwise.

Those human beings who begin the year in the fall (including me, which is why I’m doing this essay to start with) are a little trickier to understand intuitively, because it does seem that fall, autumn, harvest, whatever you call it, is the end of something,  not the beginning.  Except for one not so tiny detail:  a great deal of what we call the rise of civilization happened as a result of better and/or more food, or as a way to create better and/or more food.  It was, as I said above, as it still is, all about food.  And in the northern hemisphere above the tropics and in most places where we got started in tribes or cities or clans, food is harvested (whether by reaping or butchering) in the fall.  This is not just for the obvious reason that the food is ready to be harvested then, although that’s part of it.  It’s also because winter, as a cold time, makes it possible to preserve food, whether animal or vegetable, to be consumed continuously until spring brings about new sources.  And it follows nature’s rhythms for much the same reason that animals and plants time their full ripeness for fall.

So it makes a beautiful kind of sense, at least to me, that we should start the year when our granaries and storerooms are full, when we have harvested all the good Earth has provided and put it away in usable form for the hard months ahead.  The celebrations of Harvest Home are as old as Beltane, as old as celebrations of the solstices.  It is one of the few times that laborers, that anybody other than the very rich (who can hunt year round and who basically take their share (all right, much more than their share, the world does not change that much) at any time), can actually eat their fill of fresh food.

One of the most important cultures (and religions) but by no means the only one that starts the New Year at harvest time is of course Judaism.  (Islam does too, starting their new year, I believe, immediately after Ramadan ends (or just as it begins).  Or at least so I think.)  I would suggest that you go to and ask her for the religious and historical reasons why the Jewish year begins in the fall.  Suffice for this blog, I’m just very glad they do since I do too and so I believe they’re making a judicious choice.  By the way, Judaism still uses a Lunar Calendar and begins its count of the years with, and this time I’m really guessing, the building of the Second Temple (Solomon’s, I believe) or with the destruction of that temple.

That’s actually an interesting topic in itself that I will confine to a paragraph rather than the treatise it deserves: the way we count the years.  Currently, in this country and through most of what we fondly call, even if we are bragging, the first world, we count the years as B.C.E or A.C.E.  This means “before the common era” and “after the common era.”  When I was girl, it wasn’t quite so politically correct or religiously neutral.  It was B.C. or A.D., meaning “before Christ” (or the Latin version of that, which used the same initials) and “Anno Domini”, which means “year of our Lord”.  (I used to think it meant “after death” (not same initials), which would seem to leave out the 32 (36?) years of His life.)  Among the troubles this created was that it felt at the least puzzling and possibly at the most offensive to those in the world who weren’t Christian but were expected to count the years according to the birth of a (to them) probably mythical human.  But that’s not all, of course.  In the first place, according to the Bible itself, Jesus must have been born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks and it was lambing time.  Apparently in that time and place, shepherds and flocks are not out in the pastures and hills in the middle of winter.  (Christmas was dated by early popes to coincide with the Roman Saturnalia (the Roman celebration of the returning of the sun and to give the plebs something to do other than riot) in order to camp on to the older holiday and turn it to their own purposes.  Perhaps wisely, the actual date of Christ’s birth not being listed or knowable to them, they made it in late December, at the time of the Solstice and gave the folk something to celebrate that wasn’t, well, Roman.)  In the second place, what with the calendar slippage we talk about above and various misreadings of the texts, it is exceedingly likely that Jesus was born either (and this I just can’t remember) about three or six years before the year that is considered for calendar purposes to be the year of his birth (or the same number of years after).  So, basically, Jesus was born before his birthdate or after it.  Oh well.  In any event, B.C.E. dates are counted backwards (thus, 3000 B.C.E. takes place before 2000 B.C.E.), which adds to the carefree, antic sense of confusion.  As I’ve made clear (or muddy), I’m not exactly sure what Day One is considered to be in the Jewish Calendar, except it has something to do with the temple in Jerusalem.  I believe in the Islamic world, the birthdate of Mohammed is Day One.  Chinese year counting has to do with the establishment of the First (I believe) Dynasty, which is a really long time ago.  Every culture has its own beginning date, of course, and they’re all different.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the way, since we were talking about the Julian Calendar way up there at the top of this essay, I should point out that the Romans started their count with the date Julius Caesar became the consul of Rome.  I think.  Or it might have been his birthdate.  (Or even the mythical date that Rome was established by Romulus.  Whatever happened to Remus, by the way?) Also by the way, in an effort to help you win trivia contests, it is apparently not true that Julius Caesar was born via Caesarean Section (thus naming it), because while this method of birth did take place, it apparently always (or virtually so) killed the mother, and Caesar’s mother was very much alive until his adulthood at the very least.  Also, the word Caesar (from which we now derive Kaiser and Czar and other terms for kingship) was, first, pronounced with a hard “c”, so it didn’t sound like “seezar” but like “Kaiser”, second, simply one of his names and not a title until after Octavian changed his own name to the title/name “Augustus Caesar” many years later, and third, did not at any time in Caesar’s life denote his status.  Finally, he did not consider himself to be Emporer of Rome, but called himself (as did a couple of generations of his successors) First Consul of Rome.  Which is a distinction without a difference.

And this essay started out to be what I love about September and fall and the beginning of the year, so I’ll end just by saying that the ending of the hot weather, the starting of the turning of leaves and crispness of air and wonderful fall vegetables, fruits and so forth, are just the beginning.  Although I didn’t like school, I loved the getting ready for it.  The new clothes and shoes, the pencil box (look this up, you’ll be surprised, it was a Very Big Deal for little kids in my era), the new Chief Tablet (red cover with a black drawing of a Sioux Chief in war bonnet), notebooks, a school bag (not in my time a backpack, which only weird hikers knew about), plaid skirts and knee socks and saddle shoes, in short, all the accoutrements of being a grade schooler in public school in the fifties, I still remember them fondly and with nostalgia.  And I remember my mother’s wonderful fall meals, the stews and spare ribs and pork chops and potatoes, to mention nothing of her vegetable soup, her homemade bread, her chili, her apple and cherry and pumpkin pies.  Fall food is still my favorite–you get the last of the summer tomatoes and corn and all the new potatoes and beets and onions and carrots, plus the smells.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, as wonderful as being a very hungry grade schooler on a chilly day running home and slamming into the kitchen where everything smells of freshly baking bread and a vegetable/beef soup that has been simmering for hours.  This is something (minus the bread) that I do for myself when it gets to be chilly enough weather even now, using a Crock Pot and one of my mother’s recipes.  It is truly wonderful.  It is how I imagine those old cultures like the Celts celebrated their relief that, no matter what, their tribe had enough to eat for the cold, drear winter, and I would imagine they had stews and soups too that drew the men, women and children of the family home to sniff and revel and eat, to roll themselves into fur robes and watch the dying fire and tell stories of great deeds until they slept, bellies full, food stored, frightening animals and humans kept out by palisades, safe and warm and ready for the next adventure, the new year.

Vegetable Soup

Vegetable Soup

(And I didn’t look up one thing, which is not something that in the ordinary course of events I should celebrate, I know.)

Have a wonderful fall, at whatever time of year yours takes place, and enjoy the Harvest Home.

Winter solstice
Winter solstice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)