As the great wheel turns and the earth continues on in its elliptical cycle about the sun, the winter solstice is upon the earth. The precise date was yesterday, December 21, however, the days before and the days after differ by only seconds. These are the dark days, the proverbial “darkest before the dawn” days, the days that also promise a window and then a doorway to a brighter time. The many festivals of light drawn from different cultures, religions and faiths do not disparage the darkness, but honor the memory of the light that is to come.
And that’s the equation: To remember what is yet to come is to acknowledge that one has been there before, that one’s journey is part of a cycle, a passage along the circumference of an upward spiral, movement over the same ground, though elevated at every turn by time and experience.
In the first pages of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan complains in her breathless way that she always misses the longest day of the year. One suspects that her little failure has less to do with her famous carelessness and more to do with the counter-intuitive fact that the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, arrives on or within hours of June 21, the first day of summer.
It does not arrive, as many might expect, on some midsummer’s morning in the middle of July, around the All-Star Game or Moon Day or some other high temperature melting the summer-in-full day. Like Daisy Buchanan, many miss the longest day of the year because they tend to look for it on the hottest day in July when the sun seems brighter, larger, closer and hotter than it’s ever been. When apprised of the actual date, people tend to pause before they look back with quizzical expressions to that rainy, cool day near the end of June. This is probably why summer seems half-gone before it even begins. It’s why the unofficial beginning has been moved back a month to Memorial Day, a date that also coincides with June 1, or the beginning of what the weather people call meteorological summer.
A mirror image of the same thing happens at the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year occurs every year on or within hours of December 21, four days before Christmas, which simultaneously notes the darkest time of the year while celebrating a birth and the coming of light.
Think on the first people thousands of year ago, who, with each passing day, were aware of the growing darkness. They had no assurance that the movement downward to total darkness would ever cease and turn and restore the sun with its heat and light. Each day the sun rose and each night it set earlier than the night before. As they deemed the sun to be the giver of life, so they deemed the diminished sun an augur of life’s end. Then in the dark and the cold and the fear something happened. Some days had to pass before it couldn’t be denied, but after some time they observed the change as the sun rose earlier and set later, as the light began to return.
Each day the great orb extended its hang-time. Each day it appeared more hesitant to set. Impending doom and fears of death receded as the darkness receded, and at some point in the evolution of it all, man realized that although darkness, in and of itself did not bring hope or a reason to celebrate, it was a leading indicator of change. The change might be far off and difficult to imagine, but it was certain, and that certitude formed the basis for hope.
It’s no accident that the last ten days of the calendar year, the time of the winter solstice and the on-going cycle, happen to be the time designated for the celebration of those events, holidays, rituals, birthdays, that speak of the coming of life and light, of hope and thanksgiving.
With the passage of every solstice, summer or winter, as the earth continues its journey around the sun, something else of great importance takes place. Those who observe it, experience it, think on it, process it, and register the reality of it, deep down, where knowledge has no need of memorization, come to realize that although humans appear to live these linear, existential, “birth, growth, decay, and death” lives, the linear string of each person’s life is laid along the rising circumference of a circular spiral that bears all. The implication is this: In the course of one’s life, one visits one’s self over and over again, in the same way one visits the seasons of the year (and of life) over and over again.
It’s why there can be a dark winter in one’s youth and a brilliant spring in one’s advanced years. It’s why a teenager can feel as old as the weight of life, itself, and a senior citizen can have the heart and spirit of a young man about to take his first independent steps on to the world’s stage. It’s why one’s calendar age is an abstract thing, a mere number that signifies the opportunities one’s had to continue on the upward spiral. It’s why in a person’s life there can be periods of gestation when very little appears to be getting done while the winter seed buried deep gathers all the nutrients to show itself at some later time. It’s why all success is riddled with failures and why all failures are but steps to take in an ongoing effort to reach some desired end. It’s why the notions of “arrival” or “departure” are chimeras. It’s why everyone and everything rises and falls and rises and falls – from Napoleon to the village idiot (who’s no idiot, by the way), from Rome to America, from the sad end of Michael Jackson to the hyped or warranted promise of One Direction.
All of nature is always and everywhere seeking to communicate its entire self to each and every person. The cycle, itself, iterated and reiterated in climates, tides, markets, desires, relationships, opportunities, sufferings, health, peace and conflict – the whole “to everything there’s a season” litany (with nods to Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger and The Byrds) – is the underlying form of forms, whole and complete in and of itself. Within the cycle, the winter solstice is but one of an infinite array of messages. Because the vocabulary is foreign and difficult to discern, like Daisy Buchanan, people tend to miss the longest or the shortest day of the year. Maybe that’s why people have the holidays with the songs and the sweets and the gifts and the gatherings – so as not to miss what’s already there.
Christmas is about birth and rebirth, the retreat of darkness and the coming of light. With that in mind, no matter what one chooses to call the holiday one celebrates to remember, to notice, to take in the greater mysteries resident within the cycle and the winter solstice, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morning.