Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Everybody's Party: Darkness and Light at the Winter Solstice
It was a cold, blustery night exactly one year ago when shortly after midnight, I headed for Sperry Observatory, the home of Amateur Astronomers, Inc., in Cranford, NJ, for an informal gathering of members to watch a rare Winter Solstice lunar eclipse.
And as I have said time and again over the past year, it was one of the most powerful, most memorable, most magical holiday memories, not just of that year, but of a lifetime.
Most people expect those types of memories from holiday parties in beautifully decorated rooms filled with friends, family, and familiar seasonal music. Some make memories at religious services commemorating the many seasonal festivals (and in celebratory festivals at other times of the year).
Ever the non-conformist, I found the truth, beauty, and experience of the season outdoors in the dead of night with a wind chill below 20 degrees, not under glittering holiday lights, but with fellow enthusiasts (some might say fanatics) under a rare red Solstice Moon.
In childhood, December was a time of personal agony, a party from which I was excluded. The powerful innate connection I felt to this season was unacknowledged as the people around me treated these as just ordinary days. It was, after all, only a Christian festival.
Except, it’s not. Yes, there is the Christian holiday, but it is one of many, not the be all and end all of December. Long before Christianity ever took on just about all the trappings of this month’s celebrations, the Winter Solstice, the original reason for the season, was honored, commemorated, and welcomed with awe and wonder.
Thousands of years ago, places like Stonehenge and New Grange were built by ancient people who understood that they were part of the Earth and its seasonal rhythms, not separate from it. They understood that like everything else that lives, they too lived—or died—together with the Earth and the web of life they shared with it.
And they understood that the rhythm of all life is a cycle. There cannot be summer without winter, day without night, life without death. But in a cycle, death is not the end of the line but the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. The waning Moon gives way to the new, waxing Moon. The Sun, without which even the ancients understood that no one and nothing can live, was seen as going through an annual cycle of life, from birth and growth in spring through its prime and strength in the summer, followed by waning in the fall and ultimate death at its weakest point, the Winter Solstice.
But on that night, the longest, darkest night of the year, ancient cultures celebrated what they saw as a miracle. The sun was reborn as an infant, and from this day forward, the days would begin to lengthen once more. A new year, a new cycle, had begun.
Today, we know about orbits and understand that seasons are caused by the Earth’s axial tilt. We can do nothing, celebrate nothing, and the days will lengthen after December 21 anyway.
Yet one could argue the ancient people had something we don’t have and badly need—that powerful connection with our home planet, our Earth mother, the sense that we live as she lives, and we die as she dies. We still have the same types of celebrations and symbols at this time of year, but what we are missing is the connection to nature, to the rhythms of the world that sustains us.
Out in the dark and cold last year, I experienced firsthand the reality of the season. It was so cold that even with the whole ensemble of boots, gloves, scarf, hat, and hood, I could only stay out for limited amounts of time before heading back into the warmth of the observatory.
Before 1 am, the Moon looked like an ordinary full Moon. One of the club’s most active members set up his telescope and camera to capture the event. We watched as slowly, imperceptibly, the black shadow crept onto the Moon, first small, then growing, growing, the Moon appearing to go through a weird procession of all its phases. But instead of disappearing, as shadow enveloped it, the Moon turned red.
The red Moon was nowhere near bright enough to cast the light of a full Moon. On the night of a full Moon, we were enveloped in darkness.
Several people who were not even club members showed up between 2 and 3 am, including one woman with several children, who decided that giving her children this unique experience would trump whatever was taught in school the next day. If I had had children, I would have done the same.
A Winter Solstice song by Loreena McKinnett begins with “Enter the night, and you’ll find the light.” In the early morning hours of December 21, 2010, I and other lucky observers entered the night and experienced the full extent of darkness and cold. At the same time, we found the light of camaraderie, of sublime connection with our home planet, from that very same cold and dark.
And that is why the Winter Solstice is everybody’s holiday. The dark, the cold, the weakness of sunlight even during the daytime, are personal experiences we all live. Innately, inherently, we long for the return of the light. All of us, regardless of faith, ethnicity, race, and all the other things that divide us, in some way, feel this longing.
We may not be able to have a lunar eclipse every year at this time, but neither do we have to have a “December Dilemma.” The return of the light, the rebirth of the Sun, is not “someone else’s party.” It’s our party, the party of every being that lives on Earth (though reversed by six months for those in the Southern Hemisphere). No one is “left out.”
In the depth of winter, light is returning. As the author of the book Seasonal Dance put it, “the darkest night is the birthday of the Sun.” If we take the time to really feel the connection with our world, we will understand in a way that is too profound for words. That is the true reason for comfort and joy.