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The Good Sun

The 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 winter months.

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!

—Tom Nattell


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