We turn a heavenly corner today. Tomorrow, there will be a longer iota of daylight than there was today, and just as I rue the summer solstice in June when we spin toward darkness, so do I, pagan-like, celebrate December 21—the winter solstice. Oh, I’m not fooled. I know there will be plenty of cold, dark nights ahead, but isn’t it comforting to know that with each passing day, we’re tilting a bit closer to the sun? It’s a mental hurdle that makes winter’s icy wake grip just a wee bit more tolerable.
The term “solstice” is derived from two Latin words: “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still). This is because at the moment of solstice, the angle between the sun’s rays and the plane of the Earth’s equator (its declination) appear to stand still. Don’t worry: that’s just an illusion because as the sun’s gradual decrease moves slowly into reverse, the noontime elevation of the sun seems to stay the same for a few days before and after the actual moment of solstice.
Humans have observed and likely celebrated the winter solstice since Neolithic times, the last part of the Stone Age. In a miracle of ancient engineering, great tomb-like structures like Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland (both are nearly 5,000 years old; that’s several centuries older than either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids!) were constructed to precisely align with sunrise on the winter solstice, pretty strong evidence that our Stone Age ancestors had both the knowledge and the skill to predict and record the movement of the earth through time and space. Let that sink in!
To be precise, the winter solstice is that moment when the sun touches the Tropic of Capricorn, only to bounce off it and begin its semi-annual journey back toward the Tropic of Cancer. It’s both the year’s shortest day and its longest night. But as hopeful as that solar journey sounds, it’s important to remember that today also marks the official beginning of winter. I guess that makes December 21 a mixed blessing: both the onset of cold winter and the celestial turning toward the promise of long sunny days and plenty of warmth six months hence.
Come to think of it, the holidays are a lot like that: plenty of joy to be sure but, at the same time, some sadness, too: the memory of loved ones no longer with us; our own unmet yearnings and expectations, lingering stress. A Chinese philosopher might say this is evidence of the dualism of the universe—its yin and yang—the way seemingly opposite or contradictory forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, even interdependent in the natural world. Sometimes, it feels like a juggler’s balancing act, but it is possible to hold two seemingly opposite ideas in one’s mind at the same time and believe both to be true.
You may remember that on this day last year, Jupiter and Saturn had come within 0.1 degrees of each other to form the first observable close alignment of those two great planets since St. Francis of Assisi died nearly 800 years ago. I suppose it’s even possible that from down here on Earth this conjunction of heavenly bodies bore some resemblance to the fabled star those three itinerant wise men followed to Bethlehem on that silent night so long ago. (I know it’s just a story, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a darned good one.) This year, the winter solstice will occur precisely at 15:59 UTC (10:59 EST) in the Northern Hemisphere. There won’t be any great conjunction of planets this year, but just a few days ago, Venus moved in retrograde, so buckle up in all your relationships. Everyone will feel drawn to commitment, whether in romance or business, so be sure you’re making the right choice or the right deal!
So, there you have it: we’re back on the road to recovery. It may take a few days, or even a few months, but I believe better days are coming—brighter, lighter, healthier days. In the meantime, I wish you all the joys of this most wondrous season and these lengthening days!
I’ll be right back.
(P.S.: The photograph that accompanies this Musing was taken at sunset on last year’s winter solstice.)
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com