As the year draws to a close, the days get shorter here in the northern hemisphere. That is, until the Winter Solstice arrives.
This time of year the sun slants through trees as it sinks to the horizon at 3 in the afternoon, making long shadows out of stone walls and reflecting an orange blaze of sunset on the snowy ground, a quintessential New England scene. This is an emotional experience for me, and despite the darkening skies I feel a bit lighter because it means we are nearing the shortest day, the Winter Solstice, and the beginning of the celestial year.
We are not just creatures of habit, but creatures of rhythm and cycles. We naturally turn inward in response to the outside world closing down – plants are dormant, the ground is frozen, the silvery moon and sharp stars light our way home on frosty evenings instead of the sun. It is a season when folks – family, friends, and neighbors – draw together. The warmth of a fireside, bright and cheerful, reminds us that we are still alive, together, even as nature closes and draws inward.
The sun’s arc through the sky is lower and shorter, and planet Earth’s northern half is tilted away from our nourishing source of heat and light. If you took a picture of the sun from the same spot every day for a year at the same time of day and then plotted its position in the sky, it would make the shape of an elongated figure eight. This is called an analemma.
The top of this figure, when the sun is highest in the sky, represents its position on the summer solstice. Conversely, the lowest position, at the bottom of the figure, is the suns position on the winter solstice. You can also plot this shape on the ground by measuring the length of shadow thrown by a standing stone, or plot the progress of the sun shining on the floor through a small hole in the roof.
I am deeply affected by changes in the natural world around us – I believe we all are, consciously or not. The smell of lilacs blooming outside my front door, or the sound of thunder in the distance on a humid summer night; both are sensations which bring to life a timeless span of memories. But why do I respond to darkness and cold with an emotion of warmth?
I learned to associate this short daylight with the beginning of school vacation, which is a happy memory. But there is much more that comes with the long nights and cooling temperatures. Across cultures, this is a time for hanging greens, for lighting candles, for coming together to celebrate.
Because the light will return, the sun will grow again, a little stronger each day. And as the light turns and begins to grow again, we take comfort in knowing that the world will grow again, if we just keep the flame alive, protected from the dark and cold.