A few weeks ago it began to get cold, and it’s only getting colder. Animals are hoarding food and their pelts are growing thick and warm. Plants and trees that once grew so brightly have turned brittle and brown. Only the faithful evergreen remains decorated with bright red berries and heavy boughs.
Even the cosmos seem to be responding to the change in the seasons. Orion the Hunter sits more prominently in the sky, and the moon that once rose so orange and round is now silver and sharp enough to cut through the night itself. The air smells like snow, wood smoke, the decay of leaves and the promise of mortality.
Most alarming of all, the sun seems to be leaving. It sits lower on the horizon. The air is not as warm. The light is not as bright. The days are getting shorter and night is getting longer.
Every year is the same. The sun seems to grow weaker and weaker until that one dark, terrifying night when the day is the shortest it will ever be. It gives way to the endless, black, eternal night, and it seems as if the sun has died.
The Solstice is not just a matter of light and dark, day and night, but a matter of life and death. Before science and mathematics, how were people to know that this short and fleeting day wouldn’t be the day to mark the final death throes of a dying sun? Even the memory of the previous Solstice may not have been enough to calm the heart. The sun had returned the previous year and life returned to nature, only to die again the next winter. So in this season of death, in the deepest and darkest of winters, our ancestors held their breath and hoped and prayed for the return of the Sun with its promise of rebirth and triumph over darkness.
This year, on December 21, when the day is short and the night is long, think about the sun. Have a moment of gratitude for the season. Celebration of the Solstice may be one of mankind’s oldest rituals. Whether it manifests in feasts, the decorating of evergreens, gift exchanges or simple prayer, there is no denying the magic of the Winter Solstice.
Most of all, there is no one way, and no wrong way, to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. The traditions have changed over the millennia, and they will change again as the needs, hopes and fears of human society shift and evolve. All that matters is that deep down, in our heart of hearts, we stand in awe of the rising sun, which will return to us again and again, no matter how deeply penetrating is the darkness of night.