I am one of those people who enthusiastically embrace the solstice. Well, really only the winter solstice (I hate its evil summer twin).
As a Minnesotan, and noted winter-denier, I have looked forward to the solstice as the greatest day of the year for a long while. It’s the day that heralds the return of summer breezes, short nights, flip flops — and early tee times! To celebrate this great occasion, annually I have sponsored Solstice S’mores for the neighborhood and written humorous (I hope) paeans to the solstice for friends and relatives to help them endure the long, dark night that is our winter.
I can’t break with tradition totally, but somehow I think I must take a little different direction this year. Now that I have taken my 70th trip around the sun I feel that I can bring a bit more wisdom or gravitas to my story. (Or perhaps just use pretentious words like gravitas — and pretentious — to make it appear so.)
In the past I’ve made up stories about the ancient Celts and Druids prancing around a fire on the eve of the solstice within an ancient ring of stone. One year, it was a tale about Helios, the Greek god of the sun who got waylaid towing the sun and ended up way off course at the Tropic of Capricorn (the line of latitude, as I’m sure you know, where the sun actually ends up looming overhead on the winter solstice) before realizing the error of his ways.
I really had fun in 2012 when the world was supposed to end on Dec. 21. Boy, was my face ever red when it didn’t. Who knew the Mayan calendar could be so far off?
Now, the more I think about the winter solstice — and why I am so enamored with it — the more I have come to think that there may be more to it than just glib anecdotes.
It’s a pretty well-established fact that Christianity appropriated the solstice time of the year for the Christmas celebration. I assume it was in order to snatch a bit of the excitement that all the Germanic barbarians were having prancing around their trees. You know, sort of like a guy hopping in front of a parade to appear as its leader. Anyway, it was a shrewd move.
So why was there all this excitement to be snatched? The easy answer — anyway, the one I have always milked for laughs — was that with the ever-increasing wintertime darkness the locals — obviously ignorant peasants — had rituals and incantations to beg old Sol to return. (Which, not coincidentally, were always successful.) Upon further review, there was much more to it.
Since the famous Stonehenge monument, dedicated to the solstice, was built roughly 5,000 years ago it seems two things were certain: 1) The builders had figured out exactly when the sun was coming back a long time ago, and 2) they were pretty smart guys. (The women were smart, too, but I doubt they got to join the Builders’ union.)
Which brings me to my larger point — for which I’m sure you’re saying, “finally!” — and that is that all the dancing and singing and incantating were really a celebration that the sun was definitely coming back and life would again be sweet.
Put another way, nobody likes the dark. We humans live for the light and to me there is great comfort in the thought that we humans really haven’t changed all that much over these thousands of years. We are hopelessly optimistic creatures but not without reason as we embrace change, growth and progress. (Well, not everyone exactly, but that’s a different story.)
So the message, I think, that the solstice and of course Christmas, too, try to express is that while there is always darkness and forces trying to drag us into the gloom, they always fail and the light prevails. And it always will, so go on and enjoy the day as much as I do.
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go prance around a Douglas fir. Have a S’more on me!
Douglas R. Pederson lives in Minneapolis.