This time of year here on the Sangamon River, we reflect on a major milestone passed by our planet during its annual trek around our star. A milestone for which it’s been destined all year long.
Most of us know that our Earth tilts on it’s rotational axis. And this slight tilt gives us all of our seasons and brings us constant, predictable and inevitable change.
And now, on Sunday, December 21 our half of the earth (the top half) tilts as far away from the sun as it will all year. And the shortest, darkest day of the entire year will come and go.
So here at our home on the Sangamon River among the forest, the river bluff and the trees, we celebrate the Winter Solstice.
We look up at night and we see the starry sky through the naked branches of the trees. Here is the inspiration for the lighted tree in our living room.
The Winter Solstice marks the end of a 365 ¼ day cycle, only to start a new cycle all over again. Quite literally, the Winter Solstice marks the return of the light. Because with the very next morning, the light returns as the days change to growing longer and lighter again. Right through the Summer Solstice next June.
Too often, most of us don’t think in cycles, we think linearly. We’re born, we live, and we grow older and older with each passing moment. Moments of our lives pass, never to be relived. Like sands through the hourglass. Then finally, we pass. Amazingly linear.
But when an hourglass runs out, what if somebody flips it over and the whole thing begins all over again?
Imagine if life were like the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. The one where Bill Murray visits Punxatawney, Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day as an unwilling newscaster, goes to bed, wakes up the next morning, only to find that its still Groundhog Day. And for the entire movie, he’s stuck in the same day at the same place, reliving it over and over.
Our years are actually like that. The Earth and the Sun keep dancing the same dance over and over.
In the coming year, the same seasons will come and go, with the certainty of the rising sun. For the next three months, we can look forward to cold, cold and more cold, with a likely chance for warming again as those three months end. And with the cold we know will come snow days and kids home from school.
And then the middle of next year will bring hot, hot, and more hot. And we’ll have heat warnings and kids will be sent home from school again.
And people around the globe will honor their same religious and national holidays that they did the last year and on the same days of the year. We’ll celebrate the day when the people closest to us were born, were married, and sometimes we will remember those who have gone before on the days they passed.
And Christmas will come around again, and people will again consider its meaning and whether we should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and we will moan and groan exasperatedly about why the Christmas sales start way before Thanksksgiving yet again.
Farmers will complain again about it being too wet and rainy, and then later in the year, they’ll complain it being too hot and dry. Just like last year.
And the Sangamon River will rise to flood stage, and I’ll be able to paddle around through the lowland forests again, and then it will start drying up and the USRC will wonder if there’ll be enough water and current to host the Annual Sangamon River Duck Race again, and again…and again.
All just like last year.
Sometimes however, some changes seem more permanent; forever. But even as we ponder something as drastic as anthropomophic (man-made) global warming, we should realize that even this serious concern arises from our own human-centered view. Because even the mountains know that the earth has been freezing and cooling and warming again and enduring and surviving cataclysmic changes for its entire history. But this is not to say that humankind can’t leave very damaging scars that have the potential to rain down apocalyptic change and permanently alter the very course of human history on our planet.
But even after a global thermonuclear war (my generation’s constant grim reality), the Earth would inevitably just keep on rotating, keep traveling around the sun. It would barely blink an eye and certainly wouldn’t even skip a beat. The seasons would keep changing as they always have.
And the Winter Solstice would keep returning at precisely the same time as it does now, which is precisely the same time it always has throughout planetary history. Whether we’re here to experience it or not.
If we arbitrarily pick an endpoint for the Earth’s endless cycle – the point where it begins again – we may as well pick the shortest, darkest day of the year when the Earth is farthest away and pointed away from its star: the day of the Winter Solstice. A day of dark endings and new beginnings. A day that brings with it all of the hope and promise and light of a new day, a new tomorrow, a new year and a new lifetime.
The Winter Solstice marks the end of a year that brought constant change. And now with the return of the light, it will all change again. Inevitably. And we hope that you, too, are looking forward to it, just like we are.
Happy Solstice from our home on the Sangamon River.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, December 18, 2014, by Scott Hays