The Winter Solstice is one of the biggest events in the great cycling dance of sun and earth, marking the time when the northern hemisphere leans farthest away from the sun, and the sun makes its lowest and shortest arc across the sky.
Officially this year the last of the four ‘power points’ of the annual cycle is today Friday, Dec. 21 st . Most of us think of this day, our Midnight of the year, as the longest night and shortest day. And it is, technically, by a couple of minutes. But it’s not like the equinoxes, not really a single-point event.
The Latin word “solstice” means “sun stands still”—and it’s as though the sun really does ‘stand still’ for a period of many days at these times of transition between autumn and winter, spring and summer. It’s quite possible that our “twelve days of Christmas’ relate directly to this sustained holding pattern of the solar cycle.
If you go outside each morning during the solstices and observe, you’ll see how the sun seems to rise and set each day at almost the same time and from the same points on the horizon. The rest of the year it shifts position, day by day, from south to north (as days grow longer), and north to south (as the darkness intensifies). In places to the far north, like Sweden, the sun barely gets up above the horizon at all at this time of year.
There’s a hush at this powerful point – almost as though all of Nature is holding its breath.
For ancient peoples, the solstices were times to honor and bring into harmony the polarities of yin and yang, male and female energies–-occasions, in other words, for world rebalance and renewal. These times of ceremony and celebration were also occasions for the community to renew itself and its bonds with nature and each other.
For many humans over the millennia (evidence indicates that Neolithic peoples may have marked the solstices as far back as 10,000 years ago), the Winter Solstice has likely been the most significant point of the year—or rather, the most significant night. What a relief it must have been to our ancient ancestors, who knew that after the great darkness, the light would again grow stronger and the days longer!
It isn’t surprising, then, that Christian authorities settled on this time for the celebration of the unknown birth time of Jesus (and at a time when Christians were persecuted, celebrating during the solstice was good cover). Many medieval Catholic churches were built as solar observatories, to set the correct time for Easter. This is also, of course, the time when the Jews celebrate Hanukkah, Festival of the Lights; and in Europe many celebrate Santa Lucia Day on Dec. 13, which originally fell on the Solstice in early calendars.
For many cultures—Japan, Polynesia, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and Africa, to name a few—the Winter Solstice was also once celebrated as the New Year. And all over the world, humans have erected some of their greatest architecture to observe and measure solstices and equinoxes.
And yet now, under the powerful global influence of our indoor culture, the Solstice is barely a blip on the screen of awareness for most people—a fitting way to put it, perhaps, since so many people are staring at screens as never before, and those screens don’t blip much for the solstices and equinoxes! These cycles of the natural world are now far overshadowed by human-created holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Perhaps one of the greatest losses we’ve incurred along the way of becoming more ‘civilized’ is the loss of any real connection with these cycles, especially the four pivotal points of the solar terrestrial year. D.H. Lawrence, for one, felt this disconnect keenly, and passionately wrote about it:
“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made
a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and
setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the
solstice and equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are
bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun
and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we
plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on
blooming in our civilized vase on the table.”
And here’s Richard Heinberg, from his book Celebrate the Solstice:
“ . . .ancient cultures participated in the seasonal cycles that shaped
their daily lives and their yearly calendars. We in the modern
industrial world have far more precise scientific knowledge of the
motions of the planets and of biochemical cycles in plant, animal,
and human physiology. And yet our knowledge is sterile. We observe
the dance of life in rigorous detail, but we have forgotten how to
move with the beat.
Ancient peoples believed that it is dangerous and foolish to ignore
cycles. Perhaps our fundamental cultural relationship with change
itself has become dysfunctional.”
Yes. And perhaps the loss of connection with the cycles of Earth and Sun is both a cause and effect of our disconnection from Nature, from each other and from ourselves. Perhaps it is closely related to the mess we find ourselves in now, with all the violence and abuse and planetary destruction.
The Solstice is a time of cosmic Pause, a still-point of the year. One feels this especially now, as Winter officially begins: this deep, inward-turning darkness and profound quiet. Somehow, on some level, in our very bones and tissues, we do sense the rich, silent meaning of this pivotal and transformative time.
At this time of year, I often return to the poem “It is Our Quiet Time,” by Nancy Wood, who speaks out of her Native American experience:
It is our quiet time.
We do not speak, because the voices are within us.
It is our quiet time.
We do not walk, because the earth is all within us.
It is our quiet time.
We do not dance, because the music has lifted us to a place where the spirit is.
It is our quiet time.
We rest with all of nature. We wake when the seven sisters wake.
We greet them in the sky over the opening of the kiva.
Isn’t it such a paradox, then, that it’s just at this time of magnified stillness in nature that we in our Western (and Westernized) cultures tend to speed up, intensifying an already frantic pace, cranking up the volume in every way. No wonder many of us feel out of sorts this time of year, and that so many get sick! Rushing about, shopping, overeating, partying — perhaps we are scrambling to keep the darkness (and death) at bay. So many people get frantically busy exactly when Earth – and our own bodies – are calling for us to stop, turn inward, be still, listen deeply . . . to find the great treasure in Darkness.
Wendell Berry points us in that direction with one of his poems:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark, go without sight.
And you will see that the night too blooms & sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
At this Midnight of the solar cycle, we can feel especially grateful for our dharma practice, this refuge of zazen, which gives us a direct channel to the deep silence of this potent time! On our mats and chairs, indoors and outdoors, and in the midst of whatever circumstances and gatherings we may find ourselves, may we nourish this practice with our attention – and may it help to sustain us, all of us, to keep us sane and openhearted as we navigate the often choppy waters of our modern holiday season — and all the rising and falling waves of the New Year to come.
Roshi Sunya Kjolhede