The Winter Solstice occurs exactly when the earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23° 26′. This will be at 1:47 a.m. 22 December for those of us in Hong Kong (you can work out when it is for you here.) It is unlikely that I will be awake but I like to know when it is anyhow. I mostly like that from this moment forward the days begin to get longer. Of course this was far more relevant when I lived in the more northern reaches of the mid-latitudes, but even here in the low latitudes one can tell a difference.
I find the orderly mathematics of the universe comforting, and for this reason I like the solstices and the equinoxes. I prefer the equinoxes because I like the idea of equal hours of light and dark (though that is almost par for the course of the entire year in the subtropics…) and also because my birthday falls on the autumnal equinox and March Madness peaks on the vernal. But the drama of the solstices is cool too; they seem like such a turning point in the year, like a tangible marker of time. and with the rate at which time seems to be passing these days, I like to have a little marker on the highway.
Another thing I think is very cool about the solstice is the confluence of superstition and science; tradition and history; Paganism and Christianity; labor and celebration. It is a total mash-up. Most people think all of those things are mutually exclusive, but – as a good buddy and I have decided – mutual exclusivity is so played out, all it is really is a lack of creativity. That being said, how cool to have a day where all these ideas collide and everyone makes the best of it?
Art, engineering, astronomy, physical exertion, social organization, and mysticism – such categories are rigidly distinct in our time, each a separate university “discipline,’’ different buildings, if not quads. Yet imagine how those skills came together, say, in the construction of New Grange, the man-made hill in Ireland that was assembled out of huge stones some 5,000 years ago. Defining a mound that probably served as a tomb, the small inner chamber has a narrow opening to the sky that was calibrated so precisely as to admit a needle of sunlight only at dawn on the winter solstice… Right through the Middle Ages, religion and science were paired in the quest for such usable knowledge, with even European cathedrals aligned to serve as solar observatories.
But today the scientists mock the believers, and one religion knocks the other, and modern people can’t even tell there is more hours of darkness than normal because they are all lit up like the Griswolds or in the malls…
Everyone likes to celebrate a homecoming and revel in the joyous return of their chosen one, whether it is Sol Invictus, Jesus, your crazy family or spirits in the night. ‘Tis the season, so let ’em all in. Like Carroll says in his column today, “Knowledge is holy. Season’s greetings.”
It feels like a party…