This time of year has had special significance for millennia.
Because it is the end of the annual spiral to darkness and nature’s rebirth. Solstice is a time of rejoicing because it means winter darkness is lifting, warmth will return, and food will become available again.
Imagine you live 10,000 years ago, somewhere above latitude 45 or so, you would notice the lengthening of the days a couple of weeks after December solstice. That meant you might survive.
Even 5,000 years ago communities had invested so much in understanding the solar cycle that farmers in the Boyne Valley, Ireland built New Grange, an 85 metre diameter stone tomb, which has a light box which illuminates a 19 metre long passage and chamber as the sun rises on solstice morning! The solar bounce was important to their livelihoods.
The solstice passed today at 4 in the morning (UTC).
For most people, it is ignored or unknown, while for a few it is recognised as the event that gives rise to all the other seasonal holidays at this time of year – Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Saturnalia, and the calendar new years like Hogmany and New Year … I used to be in the former group, but now, living closer to nature, find that recognising the solar cycle helps me stay in touch with the reality of our world.
While you celebrate the traditions of your culture it is fun to recognise the foundation for them. Solstice, Yule, saturnalia and so on might be labelled pagan, but that is not as bad as it sounds. It merely means “of the countryside”. Well, isn’t that just nature?
If you’re fond of Christmas, this year is a good one to recognise our connection to nature because Pope Frank’s encyclical, Laudato Si (Praise be to Him), is all about respecting nature and treating the gift of nature with appropriate Christian humility. Spare a prayer for nature which is so squashed by humanity that even cynics are now admitting the fact of human induced climate change. (Even state media reported that 2015 temperatures are 3° above normal and the manager of the largest state nursery is startled by rain intensity he hasn’t experienced in 40 years.)
In nature there is no beginning or end. At least not practically speaking. The cycle continues around and around. When we have the shortest day (today), with the sun directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, our antipodean friends have the longest. As our days begin to lengthen, theirs begin to shorten. The date is an illusion but the perspective of the sun on our planet is not. The sun is the timepiece of nature and one of the signals for plant life to regrow. Other signals, like cold weather, also tell plants when to regrow, and they are changing, but the solar cycle does not. The sun stands still (sol stice) and then bounces back in the other direction (of course it is Earth that is tilted as it spins around the sun which is stationary relative to Earth, making one circuit every year).
What does the coming year hold? The trends of weather volatility and climate change will continue, so now we plan for a different growing cycle, a more Mediterranean one. The impacts of civilisation continue to increase and the future of current economic, industrial and social systems is limited – they will change by force or choice because there are limits to the capacity of nature to absorb pollution and limits to the capacity of people to be cheated.
People are becoming more thoughtful as social media spreads memes and as access to education grows so the brainwashing of traditional mores becomes less persuasive and the natural curiosity of people to ask “does it have to be like that” is enlivened. That is evidenced by the popularity of conservative politicians around the world, like Trump, who express people’s dissatisfactions. (Sadly their solutions are ignorant and ineffective but since more moderate leaders are not supporting enlightened system change, the radical populists are drowning out all others.)
For our part we will continue to explore new, whole systems. Ways of living that engage body, mind and spirit. Lifestyles that give us the delights of human culture and the bounties of nature, as one. It is not always easy to retrain the cynic, but even I have started to do yoga regularly (5 minutes a day) so there is hope even for the most egregious suits among us.