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.


24 thoughts on “Obliquity & Antiquity: the Longest Night

  1. John Rachell says:

    Pease and Goodwill to you and Seth.

    John, Jennifer and Krista

  2. Helen Laurence says:

    Bless you, John; that’s beautiful. Moving.

  3. So few of us still have these connections to the seasons. Thank you for carrying on the traditions and helping us to be mindful as you celebrate the solstice.

  4. Kate Teves says:

    Beautiful as always. Have a merry, merry!

  5. Marjorie Hollia says:

    What a lovely post! What could be better than a bonfire in the dark and quiet Mid-Winter Solstice night, sending up wishes for peace and goodwill throughout the land? I wish you and Seth a wondrous holiday season and peace, joy and love throughout the coming year.
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful traditions with us.

  6. Linda says:

    Lovely, thought provoking words. Blessings to you in 2019!

  7. Glenn says:

    My favorite night because it means the days will get longer!

  8. Janet Bertinuson says:

    We actually saved our greens and will have a glorious fire with them tonight. Thanks for introducing us to this tradition and many others throughout the year.
    Love and joy come to you.

  9. Mike says:

    Hi John, nicely written. I am curious about the phrase, “the darkest night.” I understand the winter solstice and it being the shortest day and the longest night of the year, but does that translate to the darkest of all nights?

    • John Cutrone says:

      Oh, Mike, only in a purely poetic sense. It is no darker than other nights (and in fact quite a bit brighter this time around, as tomorrow brings a full moon and the moon is shining brightly here in Lake Worth). But it being the longest night perhaps translates to darkest in terms of length. I’m not sure where you live but the contrast is not as apparent the closer one is to the equator… and so here in Lake Worth it is not nearly as much of a contrast as in Maine, or in Finland, where daylight at the Midsummer Solstice can go on for the vast majority of the day. The contrast of course at the Midwinter Solstice is the opposite. And a long dark night like this in a place like that can make it seem like the darkest night for sure… and not just in a purely poetic sense.

      It also refers to another old Christmas song, which I can’t remember offhand, but those lyrics are part of it: Darkest night, deepest joy.

      Thanks for a great question. Merry Christmas!

  10. Effie says:

    Certainly not the ‘shortest day’ as there are still 24 hours in it. Just the shortest hours of daylight in the day, to be sure. The good news is after today we will rebound and start seeing our days of light grow longer; yay! I’m glad I don’t live near the Arctic; ugh!

  11. Wayne L. Hornicek says:

    I am reluctant, slightly, to bring our current political state into the seasonal change, but it seems to me that politically our country might be experiencing obliquity, a tilt away from the light into a period of prolonged darkness….but that would seem to promise a coming of more light. Dare we hope…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *