“If the sun refuse to shine
I don’t mind, I don’t mind.”
Nah. Jimi Hendrix was wrong.
These are the times that try men’s souls. Women, too, find their hope waning with the light — unabashedly thirsty for wassail or a manicure or a new DieHard to make things right. Even the mercury is looking a little low.
Here, on top of Big Blue, the days are getting short: Darkness is leaking into mornings and afternoons. In the trough of winter, twilight becomes the norm.
There is a tiny but measurable statistical possibility that the trend will continue. It may get darker and colder forever. The seasons seem to follow each other in a circle dance — but, hey, you never know.
In the weeks leading to the Winter Solstice, possibilities fade. Life itself seems problematic. It is no surprise that religions ancient and modern attach such great importance to this time of year, when Christ, Hindus’ Krishna and Mithra (the Greek god of light) share a birthday. Eat, drink and be merrily pious for tomorrow … ?
“The mercury,” I said, “is low,” referring to that queerly self-absorbed, cohesive and toxic metal of thermometric fame. But consider Mercury, the planet.
If the human race had arisen on the first rock from the sun instead of the third, we would observe no solstices. Mercury’s orbital axis is vertical with respect to its orbital plane. Every day is the same. Every season is summer. Would there be religion?
OK, OK, I know it’s hot as blazes there, and Life-As-We-Know-It won’t float (no water, for starters). But take my question as a point of departure: What if Big Blue’s orbital axis was vertical, too? Without a season of despair, would there arise an organized effort at supplication and hope? If things didn’t look occasionally bleak, would a savior be of any particular interest? Without seasonal extremes, would the very notion of heaven and hell have meaning?
I don’t think so. If life were like elevator music — never better, never worse — who would postulate choirs of angels?
And so we have the Winter Solstice. Freighted with Zoroastrian astrological baggage, Wiccan dance, Druidic chant and Hebrew salvation; Christian, Greek and Hindu birth; and New Age reconfiguration — inventions of the northern climes, all. South of the equator, our shortest day is their longest, our shivering blizzards a far cry from their lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
No surprise, then, that the northern faiths have proved something of a tough sell below the tropics. Not only does our hardest-hitting holiday fall in the wrong seasonal slot, but vast oceans so temper the southern climes that there is no big incentive to seek salvation. Down Under, native beliefs tend toward animism and pantheism, dreamtime and songlines. (It is probably easier to feel at one with nature when you can comfortably run around naked most of the time.)
None of which diminishes the importance of the season for us, here and now.
If it takes a little darkness and cold to remind us to be thankful, let’s start with thanking the Creator for putting a little tilt in our wobble. If trees that found their ecological niche by retaining leaves through the dark season became a pagan symbol of life, let’s bring an evergreen inside and honor the miracle. If gift-giving sprang up as a way to share summer’s bounty and ensure survival of the clan through snowy days ahead, let’s find that true spirit of giving — selfless charity. If solar rebirth heralds maximum seasonal potential, let us look to a baby for inspiration and hope.
We have, all of Big Blue’s children, found our separate explanations, placed our trust in separate gods and striven mightily to convert the heathen. We have hidden self-serving motives under trappings of religiosity and fought crusades heralding truth, all while we pillaged.
As we edge past this solar nadir, we can sit before the fire (a bit of photosynthetically trapped sunshine) and light a candle (more solar power: beeswax or dinosaur juice) for peace. We are sisters and brothers on this big blue ball. As the mercury dips, let’s huddle for warmth, and remember what we share.
I began this discourse with a song, and I will end it with another — Joni Mitchell this time; lyrics for the solstice:
“There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams,
There’ll be plenty of new dreams, before that last revolving year is through.
And the seasons, they go round and round …
In the circle game.”