winter solstice arrives on Monday (Dec. 22) at 2:04 AM, ushering
in the official start of winter for those of us dwelling in
the northern hemisphere of this planet. It is a time when
darkness rules much of the day. It is a time of rituals, festivities
and celebration. It is the solar New Year. From this point
in time, the light of day begins a slow, gradual return that
will, in a few months time, bring spring.
The winter solstice marks the time when the sun moves over
its lowest arc in our northern skies. It rises at its southern-most
point in the east and sets at its southern-most point in the
west. Technically, our winter solstice occurs when the sun’s
course follows along the Tropic of Capricorn, which is the
line on world maps that runs parallel to, and at a latitude
23 degrees and 27 minutes south of, the equator. When the
sun is overhead along this line, the winter solstice has arrived.
For persons living in the Southern Hemisphere, this track
of the sun marks their summer solstice. The northern-most
track of the sun is demarcated by the Tropic of Cancer, which
coincides with the time of our summer solstice.
The winter solstice always leaves me with mixed feelings.
While it is great that the amount of daylight is increasing,
the earth in these parts is still cooling down, providing
prime conditions for months of additional snow, ice and cold.
It is the hump date to cross for more light during the day,
but it doesn’t mean a concomitant rise in temperatures is
in the forecast. In fact, our ground in these parts is still
in the process of losing heat and freezing hard. While the
amount of light is increasing, my exposure to it generally
is not, as I spend more time indoors, feeding the wood stove
and trying to stay warm. While I look forward to the increasing
light of day, I do not look forward to the months of cold
weather that remain.
The time around the winter solstice has been important for
humans well into the shadows of our prehistory. A number of
years back, I was hiking with my son through a grassy field
in southern Minnesota when we came upon a group of large stones
that had been arranged in a line. While it at first appeared
to be just some stones in the high grass, it was actually
a rather simple calendar of sorts. At one end, the stone line
marked the point on the horizon where the sun rose at the
time of the winter solstice. It had been constructed by the
early Native American people who had frequented the area.
While this was not a structure of great aesthetic appeal,
it was amazing to us for the energy, observation and beliefs
that must have led to its construction. It was easy to imagine
shamans performing solstice rituals along this line of stones,
making offerings to their gods to ensure the sun will rise
higher in the sky and that their people will survive the coming
While today we are aware of the solar cycle our planet goes
through—due to its 23.5-degree tilt toward the plane of its
rotation around the sun—early peoples had none of this knowledge.
The observation that the amount of daylight was diminishing
was no doubt the source of some consternation that if the
pattern continued, the sun would disappear, and with it, the
life dependent upon it. Such concern may be one of the factors
that led to the diversity of ritual and celebration that has
been associated with the winter solstice in northern climes
worldwide. While I may today be able to understand some of
this phenomenon, it doesn’t mean I don’t still think of it
as a cosmological mystery worthy of awe. In a universe that
scientists have recently filled with dark matter, black holes
and vibrating strings, that our little bright water-blessed
planet keeps a steady course around its sun seems quite amazing.
In the ritual celebrations associated with the winter solstice,
the return of the sun is often of paramount concern. The sun
is associated with light and life. The tradition of special
activities around this time of year to insure the sun’s return
appears to go back far into human prehistory. With the dependence
of our species on plant and animal life that follow certain
cycles with the seasons, it is likely that the mysteries of
the solar cycle were appreciated early in the evolution of
human consciousness. These festivities and rituals also brought
people together, strengthening social bonds that may have
been (and for many still are) critical for the individual
to mentally and physically survive winter’s onslaught.
Today we may understand this process in terms of a cosmology
dominated by the measurements of science, forces of physics
and dramatic new bits of information gathered from fancy space-based
telescopes. Our early ancestors probably understood it in
terms relative to their diverse systems of belief that explained
the workings of their world—the gods, energy and living things
thought to make manifest their environment.
With the passing solstice, we begin another lap around the
sun, not knowing what lies before us, but hoping for the best.
In this, I don’t have much more knowledge of what to expect
than did my ancient forebears. I look up at the stars of cold
nights and look forward to spring’s warm sun. I watch snow
gather and weigh down the outstretched limbs of evergreens
and remember life is only temporarily frozen over the cool
landscape; that despite the icy crust on the earth, life patiently
perseveres, awaiting the inevitable thaw of spring.
And now, as the festivities of the holidays head for their
crescendo and my last column of the year reaches its conclusion,
I would like to wish you all an energy efficient, environmentally
responsible and joyous solar New Year!