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!