A Podcast for the Winter Solstice
by Patrick McLean
The darkest day of the year.
Today is the winter solstice. That means, in this hemisphere, it’s the day we get the fewest hours of sunlight. It’s the darkest day of the year.
It’s an observation that fits the times doesn’t it?
Every day since September 22nd, the days have been getting shorter. Or darker, depending on how you want to look at it.
This is an interesting astronomical phenomenon and you can find all kinds of descriptions and diagrams of about the equinoxes and the solsti. Precise, geometric things they are. Explaining how the axial tilt of the earth gives rise to the seasons themselves as we complete a year-long orbit around the firey ball of hydrogen we call the sun.
But I don’t really care about any of that. You see that’s the easy stuff to know. What’s out there. What I’m interested in is what’s in us. And how what’s out there makes us who we are.
Every culture in the Northern Hemisphere celebrates this time of year. Yule comes from Pagan Scandinavians. The early church paved over the Roman festival of a God called Mithras and the Saturnalia, to provide the foundation of the celebration we know as Christmas.
Temple geometry of every kind, From the pyramids, to Stonehenge to chichen izta to St. Peter’s to the Washington memorial indicates the passage of the seasons. It allows us to tell one day from the next and mark the passage of time with precision
So when you get right down to it, stonehenge is a very, very, very heavy device for determining, among other things, the solstice.
Well, agriculture depends on knowing the best time to plant. It’s a crapshoot anyway, what with freak cold snaps, Indian summers, floods, fires, locusts — nature can fake you out and break your heart at every turn. But your best shot comes around the same
time every year. And regardless of how good or bad a particular year might be, the earth keeps spinning and things keeping growing.
So fine, wake me when spring gets here. But why mark the darkest day of the year? You see, from a natural perspective, most everything around us has been dying since September 22nd. A tree loses it’s leaves in the fall. A tree also loses it’s leaves when it dies.
So if you’re very primitive, and you don’t have a stonehenge. And you don’t have any other way of recording and transmitting knowledge except through the elders of the tribe — The madmen and the mystics, who are cool and everything — fun at parties, but not the most accurate or meticulous source of information. Well, then this time of year looks like the end of the world.
Fenray the wolf eats the sun. It’s all Ragnarock and roll from here on in.
And we know it’s not because we have science and history and writing and numbers to keep track of it all. Hell, we’ve got spreadsheet’s and pivot tables. We’re far too smart to be fooled by nature. I mean, it’s not like we rush around frantically to be with loved ones, huddle around fires, light candles and displaying the few plants that remain green as a symbol of growth and hope and things eternal.
It’s not like we make phone calls and send out messages to distant friends and relatives letting everybody know that we’re okay — and seeking that same message in return.
It not like it’s a time of year that we lay out a feast, and throw parties to try and convince ourselves and others how good we’ve got it, and how everything’s going to be okay.
It’s not like it’s a time of the year when people turn to religion.
How scared and frantic we all act around the solstice. How frightened.
It’s the darkest day of the year. And, for all our intelligence and achievements and self-congratulations, on some animal level, we still freak out about it. Even though we know better.
But there’s another thing I’ve noticed. Christmas doesn’t fall on the solstice. Neither does New Year’s.
So if you were watching the sun, and you didn’t have a Stonehenge, how long would it take you to confirm that the days were indeed getting longer. That things were getting brighter. That the darkest day of the year was behind you. 4 days? 12 days?
Something like that.
It’s the darkest day of the year. But it’s not the end. Tomorrow will be brighter. And the day after that, and the day after that — all the way until June.
It’s an inarguable physical fact. But, as I said, I’m not all that interested in facts. I’m interested in a higher order of ideas. What we do with the facts. How we use the facts to tell ourselves stories that create meaning.
So you know what I make of this fact? I think this is how nature teaches us hope. Because sometimes the days are dark and then they get darker. But that’s okay. It goes the other way too.
As sure as the turning of the earth.