The Darkest Day

Today, the Winter Solstice, is the true reason for the season.  The customs of this time of year endure because they make us happy:  hearing from family and friends, get-togethers at the office and elsewhere offering a chance to set aside our many differences by raising a glass and sitting down to a feast to celebrate with song and good cheer that for all our civilization and sophistication we are still just a tribe.  The gifts we exchange, be they physical or the equally as precious ones of friendship and love, are, to paraphrase “The Great Agnostic" Robert Ingersoll, evidence we are remembered.  The evergreen trees we display are a sign that when all else seems dead and frozen, life goes on as surely as the sunshine will return.

Matt's Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

For those who fear I’ve lost the spirit of Christmas…
I present my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, up and decorated as of today on my patio!

The Winter Solstice marks the point in our yearly journey around the Sun when the days are shortest and will start growing longer.  It is the dark valley from which we can see and long for the summit; it means warmer weather and brighter days are just around the corner.  Since the winter of 2006-07, when HIV turned into AIDS for me and things I took for granted like walking or buttering a piece of toast became impossible and are now just memories, the Winter Solstice is an annual reminder of how fragile our lives are, and how the bitter cold is only temporary because Spring is always just over the horizon.  This cold may be harsh, but it is only ever inconvenient — it is not the end.

And so this most significant annual event in all of our shared human history, deeply ingrained in our common ancestry, is the one upon which all other major winter holidays are founded — from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia honoring the god of agriculture, to our Anglo-Saxon pagan ancestors celebrating Mōdraniht or "Mothers’ Night” and its related celebration of Yule celebrated by their Germanic contemporaries in honor of the god Odin when livestock were culled from herds to save feed during the long winter months, to Malkh the "birthday of the Sun" in Vainakh mythology, to Yalda the Persian/Iranian festival celebrated on the "longest and darkest night of the year,” to Soyal observed by the Zuni and the Hopi native American tribes, to the Dōngzhì Festival celebrated in China and East Asia, to Hanukkah the Jewish “Festival of Lights,” to the Christian myth of a man named Jesus said to have been born around this time on Christmas as “the light of the world,” even though there is no record of such a celebration in early Christian writings until 336 CE.  Before our ancestors began seeing “fairies in the garden,” as Douglas Adams puts it, and added religious layers over the solstice, they simply looked out over the dawn horizon and saw the Sun rise over mountaintops and trees and knew it was going to start its journey northward again.  And from that they found hope.  At their core, all these observances share a common theme — light.

The shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice happens every December 21st (using the Gregorian calendar of the Christians).  It is when the majority of our planet is tilted farthest from the Sun, receiving the least amount of nourishment from that one true source of all living things which feeds the plants on which all animal life and our own depends.  For 3.5 billion years it has sustained everything on Earth.  Copernicus' heliocentrism (Sun-centered solar system) confirmed by Galileo revealed humanity’s true relationship to the Sun, showing that we on Earth were not at the center of the universe, and they heralded the revolutionary intellects that ushered in the Enlightenment, setting humanity on the path of scientific and cultural progress to which we owe our technology and social organization, enabling a quality of life that would be unimaginable to all generations before us.


The Winter Solstice gives me hope for a distant future I will not see — Carl Sagan described these unborn relatives of ours as a species “with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, more confident, far seeing, capable, and prudent.”  What better time to celebrate reason, compassion, hope, and our shared humanity than on the darkest day?

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