One morning at dawn, a low shaft of sunlight streaked through the valley where Adam was staying and outlined every flower, rock, and pebble. It was a solitary ray, and it lasted no more than a minute. But in that minute there awoke in Adam a solitary longing. Why that? he asked. Why now? (from The Story of Everything, Ch. 19)Tomorrow at precisely 1:08 A.M. EST the winter solstice will come. I'll be asleep on the earth's northern hemisphere, halfway up from the equator, taking advantage of the year's longest night. I won't be feeling the 23.5 degree tilt of the earth that creates all this friendly darkness. Tomorrow, if the sky is clear, I'll follow the sun through its lowest trajectory of the year. This is the point at which the sun "stands still," sol-stice coming from the Latin for sun-standing-still.
What actually stands still is not the sun but the arc that it follows from dawn to dusk. That arc has been falling for six months now and the standing-still is the pause before it reverses direction and begins again to rise. The complementary pause comes six months later, at the summer solstice, when the arc stops climbing and begins another descent.
From the beginning of recorded history, festivals of light have celebrated the winter solstice. Other celebrations--
Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and, this year at least, Eid-ul-Adha--appear in the calendar around the time of such festivals. Perhaps the original idea was to beg the gods to remove the threat of perpetual night. Today the meaning is more symbolic: we need the Light that wipes out fear, despair, ignorance and evil.
While festivals exist to celebrate the summer solstice, they do not say, "Enough of the light!" None implores for winter's reverse. None asks for more darkness. None begs the sun to fall. Who would want symbolic night--fear, despair, ignorance, evil?
It goes against the spirit of both solstices, then, to express a longing for the dark, as I have done here and here. The darkness I love, of course, is not moral darkness but the darkness in our knowing. All I ask is that we see it. All I ask is to be rid of false illumination--to resist the temptation to take theories, mathematical models, hypotheses, the words "could have" and "may have" as evidence. Let us continue to speculate, but until the evidence is in, why deny the dark?
In Ireland there's a circular mound, 5,000 years old and about the size of an acre, called Newgrange. (Be sure to see it.) Newgrange is less well known than its English cousin, Stonehenge, but it's a bit older--older even than the Egyptian pyramids--and it's just as great a mystery. At dawn on the winter solstice Newgrange receives a ray of sunlight deep into its central chamber and reveals intricate carvings of spirals and discs. That solitary ray lasts for 17 minutes a day, from the 19th to the 23rd of December.
Seventeen minutes a day, five days a year. That's it. The rest is darkness. Is light that reaches so deep worth that long a wait? It's not more light that I celebrate at the winter solstice, but the coming of light like that.
I wish you Light during this holiday season, and I thank you for your support in 2007.
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COPYRIGHT (C) 2007 JOHN N. KOTRE