Happy solstice, a somewhat forgotten mark of time and the movement of the planets. In the northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year and the longest night; it is also the first day of winter. No one seems to want to celebrate that as much as we like to acknowledge the first day of spring or summer. And it is certainly overshadowed by the much greater and now mostly commercial holiday, Christmas, which is barely four days away. Like everyone else, I am scurrying to meet that deadline. It is a Christian holiday and is so celebrated in churches throughout the world but it has always seemed to me to be more of a Capitalist Holiday as the weeks and days that precede it mark the most scrutinized and analyzed shopping days of the calendar year. If you listen to the news, this slow turn of the planet on its axis seems a lot less important, by a long shot.
I love the solstice and have paid close attention to it ever since living in Iceland, so long ago. There the shortest day is very short, in terms of light. Most of the winter’s day is dark like night. In all, the winter solstice is a somber time. Summer is the reverse and on the solstice, the sun only touches the horizon for the briefest moment before rising again into the ever-blue sky. That is the day they celebrate. We are a long way from that today, tonight. I sometimes like to go out into the darkness of the night on the turn of the solstice. It is often still, and always cold. The bright star in the sky reminds me of the Christ story, of shepherds and sheep out in their cold fields, of wise men and hay-filled sheds where a baby might be born. It’s a lovely story and apparently one mankind has found worth contemplating for centuries.
But Christmas has been increasingly under fire, as a religious holiday that’s inappropriate for everyone on earth to have to be constantly reminded of. Other cultures need to be considered. The Jews have Hanukkah, which often comes before Christmas and now the blacks, some of them, like to celebrate Kwanza. I sing in a local choral group and the recent “Christmas” concert was entitled “Christkwanzakkah,” to acknowledge the three major minorities, though, heavens, it certainly doesn’t cover all the bases. Publications and Christmas cards increasingly use the word “holiday” in place of the possibly perilous word, “Christmas.”
I don’t know about all of this and find it puzzling, strangely divisive. This week’s New Yorker magazine has a brief humorous look at the current efforts to include everyone in Christmas — Christian, Jew, Muslim, whatever. It’s called “Holly or Challah?” by Paul Rudnick, whose humorous articles almost always have perfect pitch. This one made me laugh out loud. Here is the way the article begins: “Just because anyone with half a brain celebrates Christmas, no one should ever use the holiday to make non-Christians feel uncomfortable. Here are some tips to help the sensitive Christian make everyone, no matter what they’re wearing on their head, feel at ease and have a Happy, Interfaith Holiday Season!” What follows are 12 quite funny suggestions for including everyone in on the fun. Another effort came to me on e-mail a few weeks ago, a pass-along joke in the form of a company memo wherein the company secretary tries to organize a Christmas party which results in complaints from various minorities which results first in a couple of rewrites of the invitation, then the cancellation of the party and finally in the nervous breakdown of the secretary who was trying to please everyone. At least we’ve reached the point where we can laugh at ourselves.
I have a suggestion: let’s just celebrate the solstice. I think that’s where it all started anyway. I’ve read that it’s the oldest known holiday in human history, celebrations going back thousands of years, maybe as much as 30,000, an unfathomable length of time. I believe that Stonehenge, that famous arrangement of stone monoliths in England, was laid out so that the first rays of the midwinter sun would strike the stones first. All about Stonehenge is speculation but that first light was so important in ancient times, the explanation seems very plausible. The return of the light still inspires joy. And we should celebrate that. No matter what religious persuasion, no one could be offended by the natural joy that emerges from us as we acknowledge the progress of our planet back toward the light. It is something that all of us share. And the Christmas tree, I believe, has roots in the ancient celebration of the solstice. Christians adapted it much later. So we’re covered there.
Here at the farm, I wait for the light to return, every morning, summer and winter, though in summer, I can glimpse those early apricot rays touching the mountain before five, which is when I get up. But now, when I get up, hours elapse before light enters the house. Though it is morning, I work inside the house as if it were night, as do my friends so far away in the darkness that is Iceland. I like to believe that, like Stonehenge, my house, high on its hill, receives those first rays of midwinter sun. I’d like to believe, though I have no way of knowing, that the builder of this house, Benjamin Mason, was thinking of that when he first sited and then built the house here in 1762. And that once he had built the house and settled into it, he knew too that on these cold dark days, the welcome light that marks the very cold pinnacle of our winter calendar is first filtered through the beautifully patterned frost on the windows of the east side of the house.
When (and if) the sun strengthens, I’ll go out through that bitter wind and look for a little tree in my woods, just a little one. I’ll cut it with a hand saw, bring it inside and put lights on it, a few brightly colored ornaments. After all, it’s Christmas, or Solstice, or both.
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