Dies Natalis Solis Invictus “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”
December 21st is the shortest day of the year in the north. Tonight’s an auspicious one, with a full moon and meteor showers. In Juneau we’ll get 6 hours, 22 minutes of daylight. At 1:22 p.m. there’s a celestial pause then following days begin to grow longer. This happens because every year on Winter Solstice I have a bonfire to call back the sun. If I didn’t we would continue to lose daylight until the planet froze solid and everything died. So far, it has worked.
At first we gain just a few seconds every day. Three months from now at Spring Equinox we’ll be gaining 5 minutes per day and will have about 12 hours of daylight. By Summer Solstice when things turn back towards winter, we’ll have 18 hours, 16 minutes of daylight on June, 21st. Three months after that it’s Fall Equinox with about 12 hours of daylight again. Next December, 21 we’ll be right back here.
Bonfires being lit all over the north on Winter Solstice is a cultural relic probably as old as humans figuring out fire. We draw close and huddle for warmth both from the fire and our group because we humans are hard wired to bond. We crave that closeness and don’t get as many opportunities as our ancestors did in these modern flat-screen times.
It’s tradition to burn up something you don’t want to carry into the new year so it can fly out into the universe to be recycled into good energy. Usually people write whatever it is on a piece of wood or paper then toss it in. This can be a powerful balm for aching souls.
Years ago I did a stint as the activities coordinator for Juneau’s drug and alcohol rehab facility. We lit bonfires on Solstices and Equinoxes and they were extraordinary. I’d give people a marker and a piece of wood and say, “No one’s going to read it but you. If you’ve got something cycling around in your head, just give it to the fire.” They had some stuff, those men and women did: broken homes, broken bones, lost jobs, lost love, lost family, being arrested in front of the church-in the middle of the day-while wearing a bra and panties, T-boning a police cruiser, getting beat up, waking up in a field next to semi tractor-trailer that they didn’t remember stealing… Someone would start to write and say, “I need more wood.”
One guy, who was having a hard time with his wife and didn’t want to participate in anything, came running up to the fire with a handful of papers. He looked at us and said, “My wife just filed divorce papers on me.” Then, with a decisive flick of the wrist, he tossed those papers into the flames.
Other theories explaining why we have seasons
In the 1987 documentary A Private Universe, graduating students at Harvard were asked why we have seasons. Several of them are on camera explaining that earth is closer to the sun in summer, then further away in winter. Being Harvard people, they spoke with winning confidence.
Arbor Brewing Company in Michigan makes a series of ales called Tilted Earth IPA: with a different flavor for Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. They explain on the can that we have seasons because the earth is tilted on its axis.
A standard 4-year degree from Harvard, with tuition, room and board costs a quarter of a million dollars. We hear that’s a good investment and maybe on some level it is, but in terms of learning how the world works, a better one might be drinking a couple beers.
23.4 degree tilt. Imagine a round table with an orange in the center representing the sun. Around the edge goes a pea making one complete circuit every 365 days. That’s us on earth with oceans, whales, continents, mountain gorillas, bugs, kangaroos, Stonehenge and the Presbyterians. We all travel together along a more or less flat plane like the pea at the edge of the table. Stick a tooth pick through the pea at the north and south poles and twirl it once around on its axis. That would be the earth rotating every 24-hours. The reason we have seasons is: the tooth pick isn’t straight up and down. It’s tilted at a 23.4 degree angle that points in the same direction, all year long. At winter Solstice the north half (hemisphere) of the pea lines up away from the sun so it gets less direct light, and at the north pole—no light at all for weeks. On summer Solstice the northern half of earth has moved around to where it is angled towards the sun. It gets more direct light so it’s warmer. At this point, the north pole gets weeks of sunlight. The southern hemisphere is the reverse, of course. Our Winter Solstice is their Summer Solstice.
When you’re walking off your holiday treats on a Solstice morning you might see people taking pictures of sunrise. It’s fun, and dramatic, to shoot a panorama to compare with the equinoxes and summer solstice. If you should miss the shot, no problem. It will be there for you next year.