Category Archives: Solstice

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.

 

Old Midsummer

The summer solstice has passed, that longest day, shortest night. And just as at the opposite side of the year the winter solstice is followed quickly by Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so now come St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Day. These are the celebrations known as Midsummer. We don’t pay much attention to them here in the States, but there’s a lot we don’t pay attention to, and we are the poorer for it. In other places, though––Italy, for instance, and Scandinavia especially––these are high celebratory days. St. John’s Eve, on the evening of June 23rd, welcomes in St. John’s Day on June 24th. With the understanding that there is probably little community celebration you will find if you live in the United States (unless, like me, you live near transplanted Arctic peoples like Swedes and Finns), here are some suggestions on how to honor these days with simple yet reverent ceremony.

  1. Blow the dust off a copy of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and read it. Read it aloud with family and friends or read it to yourself. Tonight, St. John’s Eve, is the very night in which this magical comedy is set, steeped in Midsummer lore and traditions.
  2. Watch the film. There have been numerous film versions, but my favorite is the 1999 Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Michael Hoffman. It features Rupert Everett as Oberon and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania with Stanley Tucci as Puck. Seth and I watch this one most every year around Midsummer. Oh, but if perchance the play is being performed near you… go see it. That’s an even better option.
  3. Listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  4. Tonight, build a little fire in your back yard and sit and enjoy it. Or light a candle. Our ancestors loved to build beseeching bonfires for nights like this; there is something undeniably magical about it.
  5. If you’re a local, here’s a wonderful thing to do Saturday night for St. John’s Day: attend the Midnight Sun Festival at Kerhotalo: the American Finnish Club. Seth and I plan to be there. Festivities begin at 7 PM and the bonfire is lit around 9. There will be food available and there will be music, and it’s $5 to get in, from what I can tell. (Most all the literature from the American Finnish Club is in Finnish with just a smattering of English, so I always have to make assumptions about the salient points.) It’s usually not a big crowd, but it is a welcoming one, even if you don’t speak the language. The American Finnish Club is west of Lake Worth at 908 Lehto Lane, Lake Worth, Florida 33461. From Lake Worth, head west on 6th Avenue South, which becomes Melaleuca Lane once you’re outside the city limits. Not much past Kirk Road, you’ll see Lehto Lane on your right. If you get to Military Trail, you’ve gone too far west.

I hope these things help you to have a wonderful evening. Oh but here’s one more: just get outside. Take a nighttime ramble. Enjoy the evening. Perhaps you’ll find flowers that bloom only at night, spicing the air. Or maybe you’ll see fireflies or above, stars and satellites. Or maybe just fall asleep, and dream. Happy Midsummer.

 

Image: “Midsommardans” (which translates from the Swedish to “Midsummer Dance”) by Anders Zorn. Oil on canvas, 1897 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Note the Midsummer Maypole with the circles in the upper right corner.

 

Solstice

In the Northern Hemisphere, just past midnight tonight, arrives the summer solstice. The precise moment is 12:24 AM here in the Eastern Daylight Time Zone, but if you’ve been reading the Convivio Book of Days for any length of time, I think you know how I feel about precision. I am more of a roundabout kind of guy. Be that as it may, come 12:24 AM here in Lake Worth, it will, officially by the almanac, be summer.

Though I may not care much for precise moments in time, still it is important to have precision in our lives, and so here comes yet another apology from your humble Book of Days author, for I have been leading you astray for years now in yet another matter, a scientific one. This time it turns out I’ve been absolutely wrong about the celestial mechanics of our great planet. I have always pictured the planet rocking back and forth as it orbits the sun, like a great pendulum, thereby creating our seasons. I was so wrong. Here’s what I’ve learnt, only since the last solstice in December: our great planet remains fixed as it spins, always tilted at 23.5 degrees, and it is this constant tilt of the planet that creates the seasons. We travel around the sun; a journey that lasts for one year. For half the year the Northern Hemisphere receives more sunlight thanks to this tilt. And for the other half of the year, the Southern Hemisphere receives more sunlight. So, thanks to this 23.5 degree tilt, we in the Northern Hemisphere receive more sunlight from the vernal equinox in March through the autumnal equinox in September.

It’s all about geometry, which is probably why it’s taken me so many years to grasp this basic understanding. I checked out from math somewhere along the time that geometry was introduced to my studies. My loss, I know, but apparently yours, too, if you’ve been reading all these years and believing what I’ve been telling you.

But now that we are all in the know and have a different (ahem, accurate) depiction of our planet’s celestial mechanics, let us focus on the social customs of the summer solstice, this longest day. The solstice marks the furthest north the sun will appear in the sky. The sun will appear to stand still there at its northern zenith, and that’s the origin of the word solstice, from the Latin sol stetit, “sun stands still.” The days have been lengthening since the winter solstice in December, but now once again daylight begins to wane. Each day after the solstice there will be a few seconds less sunlight than the day before, and so it will go until the winter solstice comes once more next December. Each day slightly different than the one before and the one to follow: the constant rearrange. Even for those of us who do not like change, the understanding that change is forever happening.

It is the start of summer by the almanac, but by traditional reckoning of time, summer began at the start of May with the arrival of May Day. This older approach to time places the solstices and the equinoxes at the middle of each season, which is a considerably more logical approach. At least I think so. Looking at things as our ancestors did, it begins to seem odd to mark the start of summer with this last of the lengthening days, and the start of winter with the last of the lengthening nights. These days are, more naturally, midpoints of the seasons.

And so our ancestors thought of this time as Midsummer, with Midwinter at the winter solstice. Pagan festivals grew up around these celestial events and eventually, with the spread of Christianity, so did Church festivals. To Midwinter the Church attached the birth of Christ; to Midsummer, the birth of John the Baptist. And while we don’t celebrate these holidays precisely on the solstice, they are both solidly connected to the celestial events and the times of sol stetit with both Christmas and St. John’s Day just a few days after their respective solstice, the sun appearing to stand still at both.

Across cultures, these transitional times were long considered magical. Witches and fairies and sprites were more active, animals gained powers of speech. Our friend William Shakespeare was well attuned to this lore: his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I have long loved, is set on St. John’s Eve. In the play, the realm of the fairies and the realm of the mortals blend as one, at least for a night or two. This is the magic that can attend these days, as the balance of light and dark on our planet begins to shift again. Summer is here, but it’s been here a while already. Magic is here, too, revealed to us if we are open. I love this, and these are some of my favorite days each year, even though they are not much celebrated. I think that’s too bad. I hope you’ll come back and read more about them here at the blog come St. John’s Eve on the 23rd: Old Midsummer Eve. For now, though: Solstice Greetings.

 

Image: Voyager Golden Record. It’s the gold aluminum cover designed to protect the Voyager 1 and 2 “Sounds of Earth” gold-plated records from micrometeorite bombardment. The cover also serves a double purpose in providing the finder a key to playing the record. The explanatory diagram appears on both the inner and outer surfaces of the cover, as the outer diagram will be eroded in time. Flying aboard Voyagers 1 and 2 are identical “golden” records, carrying the story of Earth far into deep space. The 12 inch gold-plated copper discs contain greetings in 60 languages, samples of music from different cultures and eras, and natural and human-made sounds from Earth. They also contain electronic information that an advanced technological civilization could convert into diagrams and photographs. Currently, both Voyager probes are sailing adrift in the black sea of interplanetary space, flying towards the outmost border of our solar system. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1977 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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