18 December 2009

Happy Solstice!

I watch Seamus, the shamrock plant that I bought on St Patrick's Day, follow the sun across my kitchen table. Right now, near midnight, he's folded up but during daylight hours he opens his leaves and tilts them toward the natural light. If I turn the pot 180', within an hour the leaves will have moved to stretch toward the light again.  It's remarkable and beautiful to watch my houseplant, a fairly basic organism, react to environmental stimulus.

I've named him and I talk about his actions, but the plant is neither conscious or desirous, of course; it is only following a botanical imperative. I don't understand what's all involved to make this happen - for a plant in a still room to "move" from one side of its pot to another to "reach" to sunlight - but if Seamus "knows" when it's sunny and responds to it on a biological level, well, why shouldn't we? Why shouldn't the shortening days and lengthening nights have some effect on us too?

Nearly every culture of which we're aware thought that it did, and had some celebration around this time of year. Ancient people everywhere but those living in high latitudes studied the heavens and noticed that, after the harvest, year after year, the days would get shorter, and shorter, and shorter, until they didn't anymore - and then, slowly, the days would get longer again, and light would return. This was taken to be a sign that spring would eventually return as well, that the cycle of the universe had not been interrupted.

And most cultures had festivals of this time, and most of the festivals had lights - that's what we humans were celebrating, after all, the growing light bringing us growing hope of warmer weather, of future harvests, of the old year being over and the new one starting.

The solstice (from Latin, sol stitium, or standing still of the sun) was originally on December 24 in the Julian calendar (the Solstice got moved to the 21/22 of December when things got moved around with the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar), and for many Northern European Bronze Age-to- Modern cultures the Solstice marked midwinter, not the first day of winter as it's known now. December 24...  remind you of anything?

The odds of Jesus being born on one of the most significant of the Pagan holidays is, well, 1/365; many accounts put his birth sometime in the spring. The earliest record of Jesus' birthday being 25-December comes in 171 CE (which seems odd - why wait for 171 years after the fact to record the date of birth when so much else was recorded about the guy?).

Doesn't matter. the solstice is a beautiful holiday and if some johnny-come-lately messianic cult wants to horn in on the action, well, why not? The more the merrier. (Even if some of those newcomers insist on trying to crowd out everyone else with the inaccurate statement that "Jesus is the reason for the season." No, he's not. He most certainly did live, and therefore was born, but he almost assuredly wasn't born on 25-December. "Season" as a chronological term would mean that the Solstice is the reason for the season. I suspect many Christians think about it as the "Let's-celebrate- the-life-of-the-guy-who-lived-a-few-thousand-years-ago-and-said-some-nice-things-about-trying-to-be-decent-to-each-other" time. Okay, great - but then don't pretend you're the only ones who can celebrate this time of year, or that you invented it, or that this time of year is really when dude was born. You're not, you didn't, and it wasn't.)

Humans, like many other organisms, notice the path the sun seems to carve through our sky, and how many hours and minutes it appears to be out from where we sit as our tiny blue orb wobbles closer and farther through the vacuum of space. So why shouldn't we rejoice when the nights finally stop getting longer, when the days stop getting shorter, when we have empirical evidence to support the hope that, no matter how crappy everything else might be going, some sense and rhythm has been maintained in the natural order?

Don't you feel better in the sun? Doesn't sunlight cheer you, give you more energy, make things seem a little less grim? Don't you, like Seamus, respond to it on some level?

So, fellow bipeds, chins up! Build a fire, light the candles, turn on the lights on the tree and around the windows - we know that days are getting longer very soon, and light will return, and with it, eventually, warmth.

And just because we know why this happens doesn't mean that it's any less remarkable, or that the season can't have wonder and mystery and renewal and peace. It can, and does.

And so may the growing light bring us growing hope for brighter days, in all senses of the word. And may we all find reason to celebrate this Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Year - and light and warmth and new growth.  For Seamus and for us all!

Happy Holidays, everyone!


Celeste said...

Awww, Seamus! He looks good. Well said about the solstice. Happy Solstice everyone!

Patty said...

God I love you. Wait, there's a better way to say that.