A Celebration of Light
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
Note: The 2006 winter solstice will occur at 5:23 p.m. MST, 21 December 2006, when winter begins in the Northern Hemisphere.
The darkest, coldest time of the year is at once the most dreaded and most hopeful of times. It is the period when, throughout human history, people have feared the possibility that days might continue to get shorter, and nights longer, with the inevitable demise of life. Indeed, light and life go together, as do darkness and death. To many people, in various Northern Hemisphere cultures, this late December period has been considered the most dangerous time of year. Indeed this is true, for until quite recently this was when food and fuel might run out with no means left for survival, and when unpredictable weather might bring dreadful results.
When December comes we know that Earth is in the part of its orbit where sunlight is weak in the Northern Hemisphere. As this happens, people become more aware of how fragile life is. We are dependent on light. Throughout time various societies have watched the Sun carefully as it slowed its decent in the sky, and feeling impelled to participated in the cycles of nature they have conducted rituals that are focused on the return of light. In Iran the Zoroastrian festival of Sada utilizes a huge bonfire kindled at sunset on the sea shore to symbolically stimulate the Sun to get stronger. Zuni Indians celebrate Shalako and Hopis begin the observance of the month long Soyal with rituals to insure victory of light over darkness. As the month progresses, each day is shorter, and the mid-day Sun is lower.
Many get melancholy when the days are short and cold. This is not a new phenomenon--it is as old as humankind. What is new is that medical science recently officially recognized a mental disorder resulting in moodiness and depression with the loss of light as Earth cruises through this part of its orbit. Referred to as seasonal affective disorder, SAD, which we might think of as light starvation, the best known treatment is to subject the patient of bright artificial lights that substitute for reduced sunlight. Perhaps this ailment is in some way related to the long human struggle with the fear that the Sun might keep on going south, eventually to vanish.
People have lived with this fear and understood it from an observational point of view for a time longer than we have records. We find interesting evidences in old ruins and in cultural traditions to remind us that December has always been a time when those responsible to keep the calendar have used every method available to monitor the movement of the Sun on the horizon. One of the finest examples of an apparent calendar-keeping place is in Utah, at Hovenweep National Monument. A complex of walls, known as Unit Type House, outline a set of rooms where a small group of people resided, a kiva where they worshiped, and right next to the kiva is a small room with four tiny portholes in the east wall. One of the ports looks onto the ruin next door. The other three could have been used to keep the calendar for the entire year: one port is aimed precisely to where the Sun rises at summer solstice; the middle port is aimed directly east, to the equinox sunrise; and the last port is straight toward the winter solstice sunrise. This place is a reminder that people everywhere have known the movements of the heavenly bodies that made it possible to predict the time when darkness would seem to rule over light.
It has been most important for all cultures to be ready for ceremonies that many believed must be performed to assure the turning of the Sun. Indeed, there are more known rituals associated with the winter solstice than any other time of year. Prior to the Christian era a Roman solar cult had its major festival on the winter solstice. In 46 B.C. the solstice was on December 25 in the calendar Julius Caesar established in Rome. The date became so traditional that it was retained through calendar reforms, so that Dies Natalis Invicti, the Roman date of the Invincible Sun, remained December 25, now two to four days after the solstice. Later on, Christians also accepted this as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, when they recall the story of a brilliant star that lit the sky to become a symbol of life over death just as light always strengthens following the passage of the solstice.
Winter solstice! A time of transition in the annual war of light vs darkness, cold vs warmth, abundance vs shortage, life vs death! All people in our northern climes have tended to view this as the crucial time of year. A time to hold ceremonies designed to assist nature in rebounding from the path toward oblivion to one directed toward prosperity. A time to huddle at home with family and friends in love and worship, or a time simply to hibernate, as much as possible, sleeping more, and attempting to keep ones mind on other things.
It has often been said that the greatest joy tends to follow deep sorrow. What is so wonderful about the winter solstice is that once we are past that moment of time we can look forward to brighter skies. Slowly at first, then more rapidly as we go into January and February, days get longer and everything around helps us celebrate the increase of light. It speaks well for the human spirit that our greatest religious celebrations take place at winter solstice time, as people radiate warmth of fellowship and love on these dimmer days. The festivals of darker days are really celebrations of light.
In one of his plays, Shakespeare said, "Darkness has its uses." It seems appropriate that our long winter nights shimmer with the brightest stars: Orion, Canis Major, Gemini, Taurus, to name a few beautiful winter constellations. The light they send at night to inspire our minds makes up for the loss of daylight. When we see these brilliant winter stars, migrating farther west each evening, we know with certainty that once more light is on the rise, for we have passed the point of lowest illumination and are surely headed toward warmer days.
This article was modified from the original to serve as an information source for all winter solstice events.
For more equinox insights (and some pictures of balancing eggs) visit Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site. Another good article is Phil's What Causes the Seasons?
Also available at the U.S. Naval Observatory's site is an article on the Comparative Lengths of Longest Day and Longest Night, and of Shortest Day and Shortest Night and UCAR has a nice explaination of the solstice.
And finally the Science Alliance has conducted egg balancing experiments with teachers.
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