Winter Solstice

Reflections by Toni Black:

These are magic moments- the special times in the celestial calendar- in the dance of moon and sun- in the ceaseless cycle of the seasons. Humans everywhere have marked them and celebrated them in various ways forever and ever. The solstices and equinoxes are the big ones, most often noted. The solstices – midsummer and now- mark the extremes in the pattern of our days. Some call them the hinges of the year. Tuesday the sun will cease to wane and begin to wax again. From then till late June, each day- the actual hours of light- will be longer. We will have passed the darkest time

This the winter solstice gets the most attention. In earlier times when we were hunting, gathering and beginning to farm, this was crisis season. We HAD to bring the sun back- for warmth and for fertility and for growing things. Some of the rituals and customs begun then have come through to today, carried over into Christmas observances. 

The Yule log, for instance, has nothing to do with the birth of that special child, but a great deal to do with the festivals of fertility. Nor do the evergreens tie into that Manger scene. We have them because they remind of us that all  is not dead, that the plants will grow again. The partying, feasting and gift giving were there before Christ, too, in the Roman Saturnalia and kindred festivals around the globe. The wreath with its circle form, speaks of the wheel of the year, turning to bring the sun once more into prominence. It speaks not at all of the baby Jesus.

Why do we observe the solstice, we moderns, we UUs here today in 2021?  It’s not just because our little grey card says that the teachings of earth centered traditions are one of the sources of our living UU tradition. It’s not just because some members of the Fellowship may homor pagan ways.  Nor, I suspect, is it that any of us really feels that we must light candles  and special logs on the hearth and bonfires to help the sun regain strength.  I don’t think we believe that sympathetic magic is necessary to preserve the world.

I do think we observe the solstice to be in touch with the magic- the sense of a special time. Naturalist Edwin Way Teal captures some of the magic in this passage from Wandering through Winter.

“Darkness comes swiftly in the long night moon of December. At the end of this 21st day of the month, this shortest day of the year, this time when in other ages men lit bonfires to strengthen the expiring sun, the silver strand faded rapidly from sight. Picture yourself standing with us in the gathering dusk. The evening mist increases.  . . My wrist-watch ticks on.  Its hands touch 6:20 PM. The year has reached the instant of the winter solstice.  In that moment the northern hemisphere leans farthest away from the sun.  A season dies.  A season is born. We took one breath in autumn, the next in winter. “

The year he wrote the moment was 6:20 in the evening. This year the solstice will come Tuesday at 10:59 AM Eastern Standard Time.  That will be the magic moment.

So , we celebrate to capture the magic, the sense of wonder. I think we also celebrate the solstice to be in touch with the natural cycles, with earth itself.  Today we can so easily become separated from earthy reality with our artificial lights and heat to order and ever available escape into television fantasy – not to mention our omni-present cell phones. 

Observing the solstice reminds us too of the persistence of some things. The continuance of nature cycles speaks to us both of order and of hope

 How can we best observe the solstice.  Certainly we’ve made a start already. There are the holly and evergreen boughs, perhaps even an evergreen tree.  We’ve lit candles and sung songs.  They all bring the traditions into our lives,   but we can do more to capture the fullness of the holiday.

 Richard Heinberg in his book “Celebrate the Solstice” makes several suggestions. Visiting a sacred site can be profoundly moving. Planting a tree speaks of renewal. Actually stopping your busyness to watch the sunset and sunrise, marking the sun’s progress week by week, can make the seasonal changes very real and concrete.  If you did that you would really understand the word “Solstice.”  By derivation it means “The sun stands still.” During the days just before and after the solstice the sun’s position in the sky changes so little that it is imperceptible. It seems to stand still.

Heinburg also writes that one year he and his partner participated in the earth rhythm of light and dark more directly by turning off the lights, phones and clocks, all of the electric appliances that filled  their lives. They woke naturally just before sunrise and slept as the light faded. Afterward he reported “We felt more fully alive than usual, more relaxed, more attentive and happier from that energy fast.”  Energy Fast. There’s an idea.

You could also make a point of stopping at that moment – 10:59 on Tuesday morning- to take those breaths Teal wrote about. “We took one breath in autumn, the next in winter.”

Tuesday morning I will walk a labyrinth and try to time it so I reach the center at 10:59. Then will turn in the new season to wind my way out again, perhaps seeing my life a little differently.

Last year and this we’ve not been able to gather for sacred dance because of the pandemic but there is one move common to several of the dances that I want to mention as a way to celebrate.  Just as smiling makes us feel happy, so too can motion that expresses joy make us glad. The move I have in mind is a very simple one.  It involves taking three or four steps forward, all the while raising your arms in celebration, looking up.  

You can think of it as sharing Demeter’s joy at the return of Persephone or as saluting your beautiful holiday tree or you can approach a window and greet the light that shines there.   If you can do it to music, so much the better.  Whatever your thought at that moment, reaching out and up that way opens you to feeling lifted up.  It would be a marvelous way to observe the solstice moment.    If you can’t do it then, do it that evening.   Let’s try it now! (demonstrate)

Reverend Tim Kutzmark has written about the winter solstice. He says, “The gifts of the longest night of the year are the gifts of emptiness, expansiveness and expectation.’ 

He tells us, “The dictionary defines expectation as a confident belief or a strong hope that something will happen.”  And he continues

“On solstice night something will happen.” He quotes Victoria Stafford , “The whole, round earth turns again toward the sun.” Then he says,  “On Solstice night we will begin to move again toward the light. We won’t notice it for a while but bit by bit the nights will grow shorter and the days will grow longer. This is a natural promise held in the darkness of this season; This is the natural promise held in our own lives: we need not wish away the winter to find the eventuality of hope.

 Though it is dark, it is not the end of the story: something’s coming, something warm and bright and good, and something that we will all share.”

Rev. Kutzmark has it: “Something is coming, something warm and bright and good.  Something we will share.”

I am hoping that each of you will find a meaningful way to celebrate the winter solstice this year. If you know already what that will be, please share it with us during Matters of the Heart. If you’ve not yet discovered your special observance, let us know later.  Perhaps we can make it part of our communal experience next year.   

Merry meet, merry part and merry meet again.

Blessed be.

Thomas Paine UU Fellowship
Thomas Paine UU Fellowship
Winter Solstice