December 22nd is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. On this day, the noon Sun is at the lowest point of the year, lower the further north you are.
The solstice is the one universal event that all of us humans share in common each year. It has always been the most powerful recurring event in our shared human experience.
This annual solar phenomenon connects us viscerally to all of humanity; to all those living now as well as all those who lived before us. Virtually every culture that has existed has celebrated the Winter Solstice.
Surely every tribe extending back to the very first humanoids able to recognize their surroundings, remember their past, and anticipate their future have noted the significance of the Winter Solstice and have been moved to fear or honor it. Each year we become a part of the unbroken chain of solstice commemorations, formal or informal, that have preceded us.
The significance of the winter solstice lies not simply in the fact that it is periodic and conspicuous, like the return of Halley’s Comet, but because it relates so intimately to our shared human experience.
For most of human history the winter solstice was a time of uncertainty and relief, of fear and hope. As we approach this cyclic transition the Sun falls lower and lower. At the solstice, it gets frighteningly close to abandoning us forever. How easy it would be for it to just sink below the horizon and never return.
Imagine the terrible apprehension this invoked in our ancestors for whom the Sun was everything. Believing that the Sun must be a real being with intelligence and emotions, how could they be assured that it had not decided to simply abandon them to eternal darkness and cold? How could they be sure that they had not done anything to offend it causing it to completely disappear, never to return?
So also imagine our ancestors’ great relief and joy when the Sun resumed its upward ascent for another year.
The Incas of Machu Picchu, for example, believed the Sun was a god named Inti. On the Winter Solstice they performed a ceremony which tied the Sun to a great hitching post of stone in order to prevent it from escaping. The Mapuche people of Chile would stay up all night on that longest night out of fear that dawn may never come again. Only after 3 days, when it became evident that the Sun had returned, would they emerge to celebrate the New Year.
Today of course we know that the Sun will never go away, well not for another 5 billion years at least, but it is still everything to us and we still have compelling reasons for commemorating the solstice.
One day, if we continue our foolish disregard for our planet, if we allow our short-sightedness and greed to destroy our atmosphere, we may no longer be here to appreciate the life-giving gifts of the Sun.
It would be not the Sun who abandons us, but rather we who abandon him, leaving him one again alone and unappreciated in a lifeless solar system.
Sometimes I think that we would be better off still believing that the Sun is a godlike being that we might offend by mistreating animals or ruining the land or spoiling the waters or polluting the air. Perhaps then we would show more appreciation and be less inclined to sully and squander all those precious gifts.
So join our ancestors in once again recognizing the Winter Solstice and contemplating our tenuous place in the universe. As it was with them, the Winter Solstice gives us pause to look back in appreciation for what the Sun has given us and to think about the hard work we must do to ensure another bountiful spring harvest. It is a time when we humbly celebrate the New Year not of man, but the New Year of our Sun and Earth.