All hail the Winter Solstice, December 21, the shortest day of the year. The sun will only appear in the sky for 9 hours and 4 minutes. Winter has arrived. Snow covers the fields, and frigid winds blow.
Nowadays people grumble about the shortness of the days and complain about seasonal depression. Yet we are able to turn on the lights and heat, put on some music, and go to a well-stocked pantry to get ready for supper.
The weather man routinely makes predictions about sun or storm with reference to how inconvenient it will make our commute to work or other necessary activities of the day. How modern we are that ordinary bad weather has become an inconvenience, an irritation to be endured.
In ancient days the lengthening night was cause for fear. Would food stores last until planting season? Would the warming sun really return?
The winter solstice was anticipated and celebrated. Most of us are familiar with Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England. Recently I learned about Newgrange in Ireland. It is calculated that this megalithic structure was built 5,000 years ago, probably before Stonehenge and before the pyramids. It is hard to imagine that these ancient people, who I certainly never thought of as having sophisticated learning, not only noted with accuracy the movement of the sun, but were able to design and build, with great precision, a structure that would capture the winter solstice sunrise.
Did those ancients sit around in meetings to discuss the need for such a structure? Did they argue over their site? Were there specialists in their group who made calculations of the sun? Were there others who designed the structure? Who organized the workers to build this extraordinary building? Who was the boss? It is so hard to imagine how they worked without pencils or paper and with no meeting minutes.
Newgrange eventually disappeared into the mists of time. It was rediscovered in 1699 during road construction, but only since 1962 have there been major renovations that have resulted in its becoming a tourist destination with only a few people(because of space limitations) chosen by lottery allowed in to observe the solstice light.
The solstice has been important to many people in many cultures for centuries. Maeshowe in the Orkney Islands is similar in admitting the winter solstice setting sun. It is sometimes described as the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland. Recently an African ruin, Great Zimbabwe, that had been identified as an old royal castle that may have sheltered the legendary Queen of Sheba has been reconsidered as a solar observatory.
We don’t need to go any further than our own continent to find examples of ancient solstice markers. In North America, one of the most famous such sites is the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built a thousand years ago by the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo people.
Some cultures came to talk about the solstice as the dying and rebirth of a god. In Egypt Osirus died and was reborn as a baby. In the third century the roman Emperor Aurelian blended several solstice celebrations into what he called a celebration of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. In Tibet there is a celebration of the dying year.
We have no local megaliths and the lengthening night is no longer fearful, but all around us at this season are the lights of celebration on the streets and in the shops.
Lights play an important part in the decorations of this holiday – Advent wreaths, Christmas tree lights, and the 9 candles on the Hanukkah menorah. These lights symbolize the coming of the Christ Child, and the victory of the Macabees when they rededicated the temple in Jersusalem in 165 BCE.
Most of us probably don’t think about symbols when we decorate our houses for the holidays and yet we are surrounded by elements that were important to people in ancient times. There are the evergreen trees that did not die in winter, and the yule log that is a reminder of the ever-turning wheel of time.
I am particularly fond of a story that is told about Martin Luther. Legend has it that Luther was wandering in the woods on a snowy evening working on his sermon. Finally the cold drove him out of his reverie, and he was struck by the beauty of God’s brilliant stars shining above forest of evergreens. When he arrived home he took the little evergreen tree which was ready to be hung upside down as was the custom, and set it firmly in a pot and decorated it with candles to echo the stars.
I don’t know whether it really was Luther who invented the lighted Christmas tree, but I do feel that the lights on my Christmas tree connect me not only with Luther, but with the ancients who feared the lengthening night and celebrated the coming light with hopefulness.
Between the Rows 2007