18 December 2009

Happy Solstice!

I watch Seamus, the shamrock I bought on St Patrick's Day, follow the sun across my kitchen table. He's folded up now, but during daylight hours his leaves open and tilt toward the natural light streaming in the window. And if I turn the pot 180 degrees, within an hour the leaves will have moved to stretch toward the light again. It's remarkable and beautiful to watch this houseplant, root-bound but hardly immobile, react to environmental stimulus.

I've named him and I talk about his actions, but it's neither conscious or desirous, of course. I don't understand what's all involved to make this happen - for a plant in a still room to "reach" toward sunlight - but if Seamus "knows" when it's sunny and responds 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 there was an effect, and had some celebration around this time of year. Ancient people everywhere, including my ancestors in the high latitudes in Europe, 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 often 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 (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). 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 so long 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. 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 we record how many hours and minutes it appears to be gone from where we sit as our tiny blue orb tilts and wobbles through the vacuum of space. So why shouldn't we rejoice when the nights finally stop getting longer, when the days finally 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?

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 that light will return, and that 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.

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.

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.