December 21, 2019
One of the advantages of retirement, apart from not having to rush off to work in the morning, is the opportunity to take the time to witness dawn each day from the same location. In the early morning hours one can feel like a conscious participant in the counterclockwise spin of the Earth. First the stars appear to pass by, then dim as the eastern horizon lightens with the arrival of the sun’s rays. The sun appears as this part of the planet is turned toward it, then appears to rise higher above, crosses the sky and disappears in the west in late afternoon, making the rest of the universe visible again as day succumbs to night.
During this part of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, the northern hemisphere’s tilt away from the sun is at its maximum. Every morning since June 21st when we experienced the longest day and shortest night of the year in our part of the world, the sun has been “rising” later and further south on the horizon.
The winter solstice is a welcome turning point. The sun is now at its lowest point on the southern horizon. We experience the shortest day and go through the longest night of the year with promises of longer days ahead.
It is only natural that people living in the northern hemisphere would bring light and merriment into this darkest of months. It is the time for singing, feasting and lots of light to chase out the darkness.
Ancient cultures were so closely tuned in with the rhythms and cycles of the Earth that people’s lives were largely defined by the relative position of the sun by day and the stars by night. With all the artificial light we produce now, we’ve lost that sensitivity and close connection with the universe. Once in a while when we don’t have time commitments, rather than looking at a calendar or a clock to help us navigate through our lives, we could try a different approach and note the position of the sun to give us an approximation of date and time.
As mentioned in last week’s post, I grew up on the farm where we now live. The growing season was always intense with everyone involved in the seeding, planting, tending to the garden and harvesting from early spring to late fall. Needless to say, the shorter days of December and January were a welcome relief from the constant work necessary to stay on top of the market gardening business and farm chores.
When my parents emigrated from Germany in 1952, they brought with them the German traditions. At this time of year, there was lots of candlelight, singing, good food, games and outdoor fun. Celebration in our household started on the first day of December and essentially continued for a full month in one form or another. The Christmas tree went up on December 24th, adorned with candles, tinsel and straw stars. The Christmas tree usually didn’t come down until about the third week of January, right after my mother’s birthday on the 19th. By that time, the length of daylight becomes significantly longer and we finally had enough of the rich German Christmas baking.
The coinciding of Christmas celebrations with the ancient celebration of Winter Solstice is a way to make the dark winter months a little more tolerable. Those in the southern hemisphere who celebrate Christmas do so at the beginning of their summer. Aboriginal people in the south have their own winter solstice celebrations in June at the beginning of our summer in the northern hemisphere.
Ancient culture was interwoven with the environment and the visible universe. Our special traditions are days designated on a calendar and exploited by those who try to profit from them. We are not as familiar with the changes in the heavens and in our immediate environment to guide us in our activities from day to day. It suggests a serious disconnect which is relatively easy to reestablish by just simply tuning in to the natural world. It is not necessary, even counterproductive, to try to give a scientific explanation of what we see and experience.
If for just a few minutes every day, we take a deep breath and become fully aware of what is within and around us, with no thought or need to interpret, then we are well on the path to the healthy connection our ancient ancestors enjoyed. Then, with time, we discover our true self, not the one in the mirror or with identification cards, not the one who worries about what other people think, or the one who, at times feels superior and other times wants to hide. We discover the being behind the form. We discover our true essence.
When we get to this point, everything starts to fall into place and we gain a peace and sense of belonging which surpasses understanding. It really is within our power to truly connect with the universe, to feel a oneness with it and recognize we are essentially the universe conscious of itself.
The ancient view of the universe is generally considered primitive and unsophisticated. But it can speak to us at a deeply profound level as a reminder of a simpler time when we saw magic and patterns in the world around us.
Every new born goes through this as they experience a world both exciting and frightening in its strangeness. They cling to the parent for safety but have an insatiable drive to explore this strange world into which they were born. To reconnect with that time in our life without losing what we have gained in experience, knowledge and wisdom over the years, is truly helpful in keeping us wide awake and grounded, in awe of the beauty and complexity of the natural world.
The winter solstice is an ideal time to step outside the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. It can be a time to simply be present at the sunrise, the sunset, or while walking through a natural area and see the world as if for the first time.
I recall the poem, The World is Too Much With Us, written by William Wordsworth in the early 1800’s:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.