-- Rachel Carson
"Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grieve,
Too short for those who rejoice.
But for those who love, time is not."
-- Henry Van Dyke
"There is an appointed time for everything.
And there is a time for every event under heaven -
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.”
-- Ecclesiastes, 3:1-2.
At this time, the Sun will be the farthest from the celestial equator, the imaginary projection of the Earth’s equator on the heavens above, and the north will experience the longest night of the year.
This has been a powerful time throughout the ages. Known as Yule in the pagan cultures of old Europe, the Winter Solstice has been a time of contemplation and celebration for religions and cultures of the world.
Because the Earth is tilted on its axis in space, this is the time when the Sun is the farthest south in the sky that it gets during the year in the North. The day is very short, and the beginning of Winter is upon us. In an age not so long passed, when we were intimately aware of our connections to this planet and our dependence upon the Sun for light and life, this time of year was recognized for its power.
How many of you in the Northern Hemisphere have noticed that since the Summer Solstice on June 21, the Sun has, each day, risen a little farther to the south of east and has remained in the sky a few minutes less? The days have been getting shorter and shorter until on Yule, the Winter Solstice, we experience the shortest day of the year.
These people must have felt that they were receiving the incredible gift of life when the Sun began journeying higher and higher and the days got longer and longer as Winter faded. Eventually, this time of year became a part of the Wheel of the Year, the earthly representation of the cycle of life, a time to slow down, reflect, appreciate the bounty of the harvest, and to appreciate the need for death - the darkness - as well as life.
While the dominant holiday offered by the media appears to be the Christian celebration of Christmas, this season is not just defined by the birth of Jesus Christ. A wide variety of faiths and cultures celebrates also around this time of year. In fact, the day for the birth of Christ was chosen to be around this time of year because of the pagan and Roman celebrations of rebirth. Some historical records indicate that Jesus' birth may have occurred in the year 4 or 6 B.C., but the exact date is unknown. Although historians cannot provide the date, they are certain it was not during the winter solstice. This is a powerful time of year to reflect on the assumptions that pervade and define our lives.
Jews celebrate Chanukah at this time of year. While it is not a major holiday in the Jewish tradition, this eight day festival commemorates the recapture of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. by a small band of warriors led by Judah the Maccabee. The temple had been taken by Syrian Greeks who were using it for their own rituals. Inside the temple, a flame was supposed to eternally burn, but the Syrians had desecrated the temple and used all but a one-day supply of oil for the flame by the time it was recaptured. The story that is told is that by some miracle, the flame burned for eight days on that oil, until a new supply could be found. The eight-candle menorah symbolizes those eight days, the triumph of light over darkness - what the winter solstice is all about.
The holiest period in the Islamic year occurs around this time. It honors the lunar month in which the Qur’an was revealed by God to humanity. According to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at the University of Southern California, the Qur'an ("Qor-Ann") is a message from Allah to humanity. According to the MSA, the Qur’an “was transmitted to us in a chain starting from the Almighty Himself to the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. This message was given to the Prophet in pieces over a period spanning approximately 23 years (610 CE to 622 CE). The Prophet was 40 years old when the Qur'an began to be revealed to him, and he was 63 when the revelation was completed. The language of the original message was Arabic, but it has been translated into many other languages.”
Ramadan is the “host month for the inauguration of the final revelation” of the Qur’an. While not tied directly to the solstice, it is interesting that this holiest of months occurs around the time of year when the balance of darkness and light are examined on Earth because of our journey around the Sun.
Evergreen trees symbolize the continuance of life. The ancient Celts worshiped evergreen trees as symbols of the universe. The trees were considered sacred because they did not die from year to year as deciduous trees did. Their lush greenery was a symbol for the hope that the Sun would return to green the Earth once again. They decorated the trees with all the images of the things they hoped the coming year would bring. It is believed that wreaths have been part of this season’s celebrations for at least 4, 000 years.
The stories of many Native American tribes contain references to solstice celebrations.
Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day this time of year, a time honoring the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha achieved enlightenment, escaping the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth through reincarnation.
These themes, observed in many religions during this time of year, all relate to the balance of light and darkness in our lives. It may be no coincidence that these holy days from seemingly disparate religions all occur around the time of the solstice.
The celebrations many of us get wrapped up in have little to do with honoring the Earth or our culture. Rather, the holidays present a huge challenge to the environment, our pocketbooks, and our health. For example, 19 billion catalogs were created last year and according to Catalog Choice, a project sponsored by the Ecology Center, these 19 billion catalogs have a serious environmental impact:
- 53 million trees used
- 3.6 million tons of paper used
- 38 billion BTUs of energy used to produce this paper, enough to power 1.2 million homes for a year
- 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to the annual emissions of two million cars
- 53 billion gallons of water used, enough to fill 81,00 Olympic-sized swimming pools
According to the National Retail Federation, in 2011, holiday sales increased 5.6% to $563 billion in the U.S. alone.
It feels so hard to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is death and what is life, and whether or not to worry about global warming or deforestation. I think it feels so difficult because for generations, we have been taught not to feel, taught instead to feel apart from the cycles of the Earth. Maybe it's not so hard after all. Maybe it's as simple as noticing the shortest day and night of the year - and knowing that the day will get longer and the darkness will recede.
Following the cycles of life can be powerful medicine. Whatever culture you are from and whatever religion you practice, reflect upon its relationship to the Earth and celebrate the common themes we all share.
Courage and strength can only come from a connection with the Earth, the source of all our strength, and from a deep appreciation of the web of life of which we are all a part. The celebration of seasonal cycles can be an easy and meaningful way to create the energy we all need for action.
To bring in the New Year, have a celebration with family, friends, or just yourself and commit to a few new principles for your life:
Decide what you care about and what you value.
We have lots of opinions and beliefs, but how often have you stopped and asked yourself what YOU really value? Much of the ideas we carry around with us came from our parents, those people we hang around and the media. Spend some time separating out which is which and find your core concerns.
You get to decide what kind of statement your life makes. If you could write a paragraph for a history book 100 years from now about your time, what would you say about yourself? It doesn't have to be big. It could be a simple - and as powerful - as saying "she was a good mother and cared about her world." If you decide now what kind of statement you want your life to make, then you can craft behaviors that will support that vision.
Visualize what your ideal world would look like one year from now.
We must have a vision to work toward.
It is not just faceless corporations and governments that are polluting our world. We do as well every time we start our car or buy products. It is easy to blame others and then continue destructive behaviors. If each individual decided how they could change their personal world, then the world would change overnight.
Take a moment to appreciate the vitality of this season and to visualize the harvest all around you. Take a moment to be grateful for the bounty you have received and think about all those in the world who have no bounty. Just be aware that you share this Earth and that every action you take affects it and everyone and everything on the planet. Once these things are noticed, they cannot be forgotten – and you will never be the same.