Archive for December, 2010

(Stonehenge, Winter Solstice-photo by Mark Grant)

I never really knew what a solstice was growing up. I knew it had to do with the sun and the cycle of the year, but it’s exact meaning always slightly escaped me, despite the fact that I visited Stonehenge when I was 16 and Machu Picchu  in my early twenties. Civilizations spent decades and sometimes even centuries building insanely huge, heavy, expensive and incredibly precise monoliths to mark the moments of the solstices. I should know what they are, what they stand for and why they are so important to humanity.

This blog is winter solstice 101. It is an extremely condensed overview of some things you should know about this important day/night.

Our year is divided into two main sections, the time of light (more day than night) and the time of dark (more night than day). The authors of some books I’ve read have stated that during the time of darkness the ancients, not understanding how the heavenly bodies work, weren’t really sure if the sun was going to come back. Of course, say the authors, this was distressing to these folks, because with the longer, lighter and warmer days came the growing season.  If the sun really didn’t come back, the darkness and cold spelled hunger and eventually starvation. And so the people made festivals on the longest night of the year (which falls on what we nowadays call December 21st or 22nd), sacrificing people and animals to appease the sun gods and goddesses, giving gifts and having huge feasts (just in case everybody died the next month).

My own modern sensibilities make it difficult for me to believe that these ancient people thought that the sun (god) might not come back. It is so simplistic a view of the intellectual capacities of these folks that, to me it is immediately suspect of timeline bigotry. I see their festivals more as a celebration in honor of the earth forces that bring us back around into another cycle, another wave of evolution, and less so out of fear that the sun may not rise over the horizon one day.

Of course, it could be both. In the Talmud there is a  description of a pagan festival called Saturna (not to be confused with Saturnalia of the Roman party flavor). Adam saw that the days were getting shorter and he feared that it was because he had sinned and so he sat down and meditated for eight days (which happened to be eight days before the winter solstice). When he noticed that the days were getting longer, he assumed that this was just the way the world worked and ordered an eight day celebration. (I like this Talmudic Adam. He’s got just the right mix of manic extremism and carefree hedonism. He’d go far in today’s modern world.)

However, there is more to this solstice story than just the return of the sun. There is the almighty metaphor here too. At the end of the winter solstice there is a new year to celebrate. The old year is dead and behind us and we have the new time of spring to look forward to. Also, this is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, another story metaphor of the sun/son come to save humanity. If you like ghost stories, there is also the fact that during this time of the year, there is more darkness than light…more places for the boogey to find you. Death has been stretched out across the land plucking buds, freezing shoots and watching you sleep at night. (I just said that to freak you out. I do believe it though. Read this.) but now the light has begun to take a foothold in the battle against the dark. There’s all sorts of metaphor in there.

As history would have it, the winter solstice is a holiday whose origins have largely been forgotten. Here is a quote from John Matthews, author of The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas:

In our own time the Solstice is indissolubly linked with the festival of Christmas, though it was not always so. The myths of the festival are so deeply imbedded within us that we no longer ask why we decorate a fir tree at this time, or why we place green boughs and candles in our home. We take these things for granted, as we plunge into the whirlwind passage of preparations that lead up to the all-too-brief day of Christmas itself. Yet even here we forget the season is really twelve days in length–we sing the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but have little understanding of its origin.

Today the festival is most often known simply as Christmas, and it has been celebrated for nearly two thousand years. During that time, it has taken many forms, changed direction several times, absorbed the influence of many cultures, and developed into a modern industry. Yet the simplicity of the Christmas message has continued to ring through the ages, and depsite the commercialism and nonliturgical appropriateness of many aspects of Christmas today, it continues to exert a powerful effect upon everyone who celebrates it, adults and children alike.

There is a moment of silence that occurs every year–a moment we have all experienced at least once in our lives. It can silence a great city like London or New York, and it can bring stillness to our hearts, whoever and wherever we may be. That moment is unlike any other. It offers the promise of new beginnings, of the clean slate of a new year, and it incorporates the breathless expectancy of Christmas night itself.

It always feels nice to stop for a moment and rest in the oldness of our traditions. This year I will light a candle on the solstice to welcome the sun back and to honor all of those ancients who came before me and helped create this magical world I live in.


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