What the Solstices Mean to Me

I was fortunate to have grown up on the side of a mountain, and have always loved the sky, no matter whether it brought grey clouds, a bright sunset, or lightning followed by starlight. While at the University of Hawaii I took an introductory astronomy class, and I began to note the night sky even more, learning the names of stars, basic astronomical concepts…. and of the two solstices and two equinoxes. Of course, these astronomical dates on the calendar meant little to me before I left tropical Hawaii, but each year they mean more and more.

The winter solstice is the ‘shortest’ day of winter each year: the day when the sun is the lowest in the sky, and the time between sunrise and sunset shortest, such as a mere 8 or 9 hours.

The summer solstice is equally memorable for me, especially in a hot climate like Arizona, as it marks the ending of the growing, long summer days, and means that the ‘hottest’ part of the year — late July — is only a month away. The sunlight is at its peak and will now decrease, and cooler days are only about a month away — I can survive! If surviving the cold is difficult for you, hopefully this aspect of the winter solstice helps you get through the winter, too: even though the coldest days are still ahead, the sunlight will be growing stronger from here on out!

With modern astronomy, we know the exact day of the winter solstice is (usually) on December 21st or 22nd. But our ancestors did not know this. For them, the darkness was slowly killing the sun god each year (and the plant life growing thin), and only after the solstice could each tribe be sure that the sun had survived to bring spring and light another year. They were never certain winter would end and life would grow again, while today we are disconnected by our overconfident faith in the future. It likely either a) took them a few days to confirm or be certain, astronomically, that the sun god was indeed creeping higher and the days lengthening again, or b) maybe they merely wanted to wait a few days before celebrating anything! Whatever the reason, celebrations several days after the event were common in northern cultures on planet earth: around December 24/25/26 on our modern calendars. Christmas and New Years’ are really celebrating the same thing: survival of winter, the most difficult part of the year for plants and rocks and humans alike, and the rebirth that comes with spring.

Each year the winter solstice reminds me that the natural world is the reason for the season, despite what anyone else might say. Indeed, a handful of jingly American Christians remind us of the word Christ in Christmas and say with a lovely rhyme, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But… Jesus was actually born in the fall, likely in August or September, and post-solstice celebrations were common far before Jesus walked the earth. Even the trees know that the days are growing longer again, and the trees have no care for Jesus! As I grew up in the family that I did, I do enjoy saying the words Merry Christmas, but simply smile and nod when I hear Christians get too religious about it…

The natural world is the true reason for the season. Moreover, I think, the entire winter or Holy-day season is what each of us makes of it. Like life, we must find and create our own meaning.

That is what the solstices mean to me.

Happy Winter Solstice 2018!

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