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Remain in Light

It will be here soon and you probably won’t notice it.

This Saturday (Dec. 21) at 8:14 PM, the winter solstice will arrive without much fanfare from Mother Nature. There will be no meteor showers or blazing comets to announce the event. There will be but a very subtle change. The darkness of day is maximized on the solstice, but from here on out (until the summer solstice), the light of each day will grow ever so slightly. We might not notice this change for weeks, depending on the clarity and cold of the coming days. While we have had what certainly qualifies as winter weather for a number of weeks now, the arrival of the solstice on Saturday officially ushers in the frosty season for us North Americans.

At noon on the solstice, the sun is directly overhead along the Tropic of Cancer, which passes through countries such as Madagascar, Brazil and Australia (though for those countries, it’s the summer solstice). The Tropic of Cancer delineates the lowest arc of the sun across our sky. These changes in solar-energy exposure occur because our planet is spinning like a gyroscope as it passes through space, circling the sun. The spinning Earth is tilted a bit more than 23 degrees from perpendicular relative to the plane of its orbit. This tilt to our spin makes our seasons possible. On the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere leans its farthest away from the sun. After the solstice, the tilt starts shifting back toward the sun, increasing the solar energy striking the planet’s northern half.

The solstice provides a convenient point to demarcate the solar New Year. From this day, our planet may be thought of as entering another swing around our life-fostering star. While we humans may not be quick to notice the slight changes in light that begin to accrue, we have made this time an important one for rituals and celebrations for thousands of years. Only relatively recently has our species figured out some of the forces that move our home of recycled star dust around the sun. Many mysteries remain.

The ritual significance of the winter solstice may find its roots in a fear of the growing darkness of the days. Perhaps our distant relatives crafted solstice rituals and festivities to help assure that the sun rises in the sky to warm the planet and to resurrect the life buried beneath its snow-crusted blankets of fallen leaves. Perhaps this was also a time of scarce food and warmth, which motivated our early ancestors to reaffirm their interpersonal ties and their mutual dependence, making their individual survival more likely. The rituals of the solstice may have been seen as necessary for life to return in the spring. Perhaps it was these concerns of our ancient predecessors that set the stage for the holidays that we now celebrate around the time of the winter solstice. There may also be biological factors influencing these behaviors.

Research has now made it clear that exposure to light affects our behavior. While our ancestors may have dreaded the loss of light with a reasoning based on some cosmological belief system, they were probably also affected by low light levels just like the other living things in their environment. Recent research on Seasonal Affective Disorder has shown a strong connection between the amount of light we are exposed to daily and how we feel and act. The low light of this time of year has effects on the body’s circadian rhythms, which may contribute to S.A.D. The research indicates that the amount of light experienced may have direct effects upon our body’s secretion of hormones, which, in turn, affect how our brains process information. Among the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are depression, an increased appetite (with a craving for sweets), a lack of energy, and an increased need for sleep. Today we know that increasing our light exposure through simple means such as taking daily walks outside can reduce the effects of S.A.D. and its less-overwhelming form known as the “winter blues.” The early solstice celebrations and rituals of our ancestors may have helped provide some solace against this affliction, and the therapeutic effects derived may have influenced the timing and activities of our year-end celebrations today.

The winter solstice is the starting point for the return of light and life to our hemisphere. It is a time that, through its rituals and celebrations, instills a sense of hope that spring is gestating beneath the frozen earth and that warm weather will return. It is a time when we light candles, warm ourselves with fire, and exchange gifts as expressions of our interconnectedness. It is a time of hope. It is also a time of peace.

One of the more interesting aspects of solstice celebrations has been their effect on war. During the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the rebirth of the sun, all hostilities were suspended. This precursor to modern-day celebrations of Christmas consolidated a host of solstice festivities extant in the culturally diverse empire during the late third century A.D., and focused its festivities around the date of Dec. 25. This date became known as the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. When the Roman Empire later assumed Christianity as its religion, the rebirth of the sun was replaced by the birth of a son. But even with these cultural shifts and the ultimate secularizing of the holiday in our modern shop-till-you-drop times, peace still prevails—at least for the day.

Today, with George W.’s daily saber rattling and military posturing, festivities that focus people’s attention on peace seem particularly welcome. That is, of course, assuming one does not ascribe to the Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque slogan of the Bush gang: War is peace.

May the solar new year bring a peaceful world where war is not peace, and peace can become something much more than the absence of war. Happy solstice!

—Tom Nattell


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