Category Archives: Solstice

Obliquity & Antiquity: the Longest Night

And so the shortest day arrives, and with it, the longest night. It is the solstice of Midwinter, this deepest, darkest night, this 21st of December. The vast celestial mechanics of our Earth spinning on its axis, tilted at about 23.5 degrees, as it spins and makes its rotation around the sun: these are the source of our seasons. There’s a name for this tilt: Obliquity. It is what gives us spring and summer, fall and winter, the source of our annual round, our wheel of the year. The beauty of the balance and the gift of change––even for those of us who like things to stay the same––is almost impossible for me to fathom sometimes. It is the source of what we do and when we do it and of so many of our connexions to the past, to our ancestors, to antiquity. Without obliquity, this Book of Days and all our daily ceremonies would have little meaning, little connexion to the planet we live on and the stars in our heavens.

Tonight, at 5:23 PM Eastern Time, the Earth will reach its semi-annual moment of extreme, and with it, the Northern Hemisphere will experience its longest night, while the Southern Hemisphere will experience its shortest. There, it is summer. Here, it is winter. And while the tilt does not change (I used to think it did), the orientation of our planet’s tilt toward the sun does change. For half the year––half our orbit around the sun––the Northern Hemisphere is tilting away from the sun. Today we find ourselves at the midpoint of that half year’s journey. From now on, days will grow longer, until we reach the next midpoint, its opposite, in June, when the Northern Hemisphere will be tilting toward the sun. These midpoints are the solstices: Midwinter and Midsummer.

The celebrations surrounding these events are perhaps the most ancient ones we know, going back long before the time of Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. No one knows for sure when the historical Christ was born, but the church that arose from his legacy early on assigned two important events to the times around the solstices. And while the Church generally does not celebrate births, the birth of St. John the Baptist was assigned to the Midsummer Solstice… and still we celebrate St. John’s Day on the 24th of June. The Midwinter Solstice––the time of our greatest darkness––was given to the birth of his cousin, Jesus Christ. “Jesus, the light of the world,” goes the old Christmas hymn. Potent imagery.

Here’s what we will do to mark the night in our quiet home: From a forgotten corner of our yard, we will gather up last year’s Christmas tree. It’s been there, quiet, since Candlemas Eve last year, at the start of February, for that is the night we typically remove all the last vestiges of Christmas greenery from our home. That part––the removal of Christmas greenery at Candlemas Eve––is an old old tradition, one not widely followed these days. But we like it. It was only two days ago that we brought this year’s Christmas tree into the house… and who knew there was a Christmas tree shortage this year, but apparently there is. The shortage has something to do with the financial crisis of 2008 and how it put many farmers out of business and so not many Christmas trees were planted that year and as it takes ten years for a Christmas tree to mature, well, this year there are quite a lot fewer available. We bought our tree from the tree lot in West Palm Beach, with not many to choose from, and the next night we passed by again and the tent was dark, the lights unplugged, not a tree to be found. My grandparents, who used to get their tree on Christmas Eve, would have been out of luck, and I wonder how many people will have to make do with something other than a Frasier Fir or a Noble or what have you.

Oh, but back to tonight. Tonight we will gather up last year’s tree, which has been drying all these months, and we will use it to fuel the fire Seth will build in the copper fire bowl in the back yard. We will light that fire and tend it and watch the smoke rise into the Solstice Night air to meet the stars and to carry on through the neighborhood. The smoke will carry our wishes for peace and goodwill on this longest night, this darkest night, when we are called on to be a light in the darkness. These darkest nights bring some deepest joys, and this, for us, is one of them. And so we bid you peace and goodwill, too, on this longest night and through the year.


Glad Midsommar

No matter what we humans do through our policies and laws and actions to each other and to our planet, still that planet keeps to its tilted-axis spinning and keeps its course around the sun. Yesterday morning at 6:07 Lake Worth time, which is currently Eastern Daylight Time, we reached the point where that tilt translated to the greatest amount of sunlight for the Northern Hemisphere. Longest day of the year, longest amount of sunlight: the Summer Solstice. It was the opposite situation in the Southern Hemisphere, which experienced its longest night. This vast celestial clockwork of tilted planet orbiting its star amongst the billions of heavenly bodies orbiting other heavenly bodies: this is what creates our seasons and our understanding of life as we know it on our small planet. Our lengthening and shortening days a manifest distillation of all the mechanics of the universe.

Bringing things back home, we find ourselves at an auspicious juncture of the year. Although we don’t do much here in the States to celebrate the Summer Solstice (we are not, by and large, a very celebratory people), in other places these are very important days, especially in Europe, and especially in Scandinavia, which is no wonder: there are places near the Arctic Circle that are bathed these days in almost continuous sunlight. The Church early on understood the significance of these days and their rich symbolism, and so the birth of John the Baptist was assigned to the Summer Solstice and the birth of Christ was assigned to the Winter Solstice. No one knows for sure when exactly these two historical figures were born, but placing the birth of Christ at the Winter Solstice is potent symbolism for the darkest nights of the year (a light in the darkness) and placing the birth of the prophet who would pave the way for that light at the Summer Solstice reaffirms that symbolism. Both events occur just a few days after their respective solstices, and here now comes St. John’s Day on the 24th of June, with a celebration that begins with St. John’s Eve on the 23rd. It is the mirror in the wheel of the year to Christmas. And just as the magic that accompanies Christmas is focused primarily on its Eve, so the same with St. John’s Day. It is long considered in popular folklore a portal night, a night when the pathways between worlds is most permeable. It is the night of William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for this, by traditional reckoning of time, is Old Midsummer, just as Christmas comes at Old Midwinter, for although the solstices bring the start of summer and winter by the almanac, our ancestors in their particular wisdom saw light increasing each day until the Summer Solstice and then decreasing afterward, as it does. To them, the solstice was the height of summer, and so they called it as they saw it: Midsummer. We are on the downward side of the solstice from here on out. Each day a little bit of sunlight will be shaved off our daily tally… by the equinox three months from now day and night will be balanced; three months later at the solstice of Midwinter, we will experience our darkest night. I contemplate all these things and find beauty in the symbolism as well as in the logic.

As for the portals: our mostly logical 21st century minds don’t subscribe much to magic, but magic can take many forms and can mean different things to different people. If you want to think of magic in terms of calling down joy to your life, in transforming the events of each day into positivity through an open and giving attitude, well, I am all for that magic. This is a powerful alchemy, a magic we all have access to. There are places, though, where folks insist they run into magic of a more ethereal kind, still today in this logical world we live in. Those in Ireland and Britain have their faeries; the Icelanders have their Huldufólk; the Finns, who are so prominent here, have their Haltijas. I feel as if I’ve caught some glimpses of this particular kind of magic in my day, perhaps through the view that is available through a sideways glance, which maybe is one available portal. And if a night like St. John’s Eve can make those portals more open, well, again… I am all for bridges and understanding. I’ve been on a mission these days to read books in my bookcase that I bought over the years and never opened, and one I am reading right now is about parallel universes. The book was printed in 1988 and so a lot has progressed since then in the realm of quantum physics, but as I read each chapter I am reminded of how vast and truly bizarre our universe is. At this point, I am pretty much open to anything.


Image: “Glad Midsommar” is Swedish forHappy Midsummer.” That’s a card I designed and printed letterpress for some midsummer event or other. Nearby to us this St. John’s Eve we’ve our choice of a midsummer bonfire at the Finnish American Club west of town or a Midsommar celebration and Smörgåsbord at the Swedish coffee house in neighboring West Palm Beach. I’ll have spent the afternoon teaching the first of two Book Arts 101: Midsummer Night’s Dream workshops at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, so I will, most likely, be beat, and Seth will probably light a fire in the copper fire bowl in the backyard and we’ll sit there shirtless in the summer heat, with a glass of something, watching the flames as they illuminate the brief and breezy Atlantic night. And that’s not so bad, is it? Seats are still available in the workshops, by the way. You should join me.


Darkest Night, Deepest Joy

Ask a child to draw our spherical planet on a piece of paper or on a chalkboard and most likely what they’ll draw is a circle. How perfect is the circle? No beginning, no end. The shape that best describes our seasonal round. The seasons, a result of our planet’s tilt on its axis. Scientific evidence suggests that some four and a half billion years ago an object the size of Mars collided with our planet. This incredible, explosive impact resulted in a huge chunk of the Earth spinning off into space, becoming the satellite we call the Moon. The collision also knocked our planet dramatically off kilter, causing the Earth to orbit the sun on a slant. It is that slant––about 23.5 degrees––that creates our seasons.

And at this particular juncture tomorrow on the 21st of December––the Midwinter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere––the North Pole is tilted the farthest from the sun as it will get. It is our hemisphere’s longest night. The South Pole is tilted the closest to the sun as it will get, creating for the Southern Hemisphere the longest day. There, it is the Midsummer Solstice.

The precise moment of this event this year is at 11:28 AM Eastern Standard Time on December 21. If you are one who watches the travels of the sun in the sky, it will appear for a few days like the sun is standing still, getting no lower or higher, and this is the source of the word solstice, from the Latin sol stetit, “sun stands still.” In reality, things are slowly shifting. Already tomorrow the days in our Northern Hemisphere will begin to increase in length proportionately with their decrease in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the constant sway back and forth, the constant exchange between hemispheres… the explanation behind our seasonal round that helps us count our days and years and gives us grounding as humans on Planet Earth.

The changing seasons, subtle as the change is here in Lake Worth, have fascinated me since I can remember. This great mechanical clockwork fascinates me, too. And so on the 21st in our particular spot on this amazing spinning planet––26.6168º North, 80.0684º West––Seth and I will light a fire to mark the solstice night. Seth will build the fire in the copper fire bowl in the back yard, fueled by the remnants of our Christmas tree from last year, which we brought out to a corner of the yard some time after Twelfth Night last January. It’s sat there all these months, shedding needles, drying, and still for all the world smelling like Christmas, even through spring and summer and fall, and it is good, it is right to have this reminder of Old Father Christmas in our lives all the year long. We will sit at the fire that he provides under the starry night sky and toast him with mulled wine and roasted chestnuts. In this small way we pull down the celestial mechanics of our planet and bring it directly to our tiny dot in this universe, and into our hearts, too: the old Yuletide illuminating and welcoming the new, connecting us with the past as we continue to forge that circle, no beginning, no end. With it, we know that Christmas is surely almost here. And so we welcome Yule.

Image: The particular beauty of the science of the Winter Solstice, depicted in a chart created by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz. It is the Illumination of Earth by Sun on the Day of Winter Solstice on Northern Hemisphere [CC 2005 via Wikimedia Commons]. By the time the Earth progresses another six months on its annual journey around the sun, the sun will be illuminating the North Pole and the South will be experiencing darkness; that will be Midsummer Solstice in the North. Back and forth again and again… the subtle daily shift, the constant rearrange.