Being Equal

With all that’s been happening lately—as 2020 shudders along—we find ourselves at the equinox.  For some of us the weather has already been unseasonably cool, feeling like mid-October rather than September.  It stands as a reminder that the wheel of nature continues to turn, despite human foibles and plans.  Some trees have begun to sense the change and have started their winter fast while others keep their green to suck the last possible sugar from the sun.  Days have been getting shorter since late June, of course, but now the drama will increase until the winter solstice has us in the dark for much of the time.  It all depends on where you live, but for me the temperate zones have always been home.

I suspect our various predilections toward the oughtness of the world depend in large measure on what we experienced in childhood.  I knew winter before I ever experienced summer and the transitional seasons have always been my favorites.  The idea that we can take more time and reflect, it seems to me, mirrors what happens in autumn.  It’s cooler, so we spend time indoors a bit more.  Some years that doesn’t kick in until later, when the heat is on and there’s a coziness to a house that’s been left to nature’s fever all summer.  Windows are shut and locked.  Artificial warmth reminds us that we can find some solace inside.  Meanwhile the trees show us the proper way to face harsh conditions, and yet half a year from now we’ll be eagerly watching for buds.  The Celts, temperate zone dwellers, thought of this change as the wheel of the year, slowly turning.

From where I sit in my study, with south and west-facing windows, I watch the path of the sun.  Having worked in a cubicle with no outside windows for years, I was always disoriented at the end of the day.  Now I can watch and begin to understand.  The difference is really striking if you have a single place from which to watch it unfold.  The sun is so much higher in the sky in July that it’s evident we’ve entered a new phase now.  Instead of being overhead at noon, the shining orb rolls more to the south, sending blinding rays directly through my window.  When it reaches the west (where it will, before long, sink before touching that window) I know the work day is over.  It’s no wonder our ancient ancestors kept this transition with holidays we’ve long sacrificed to capitalism.  I can still, however, see the changes and appreciate them for what they are.

Shortest Day

This is it.  It’s here.  Today marks the winter solstice, the longest night.  Those who campaign to keep Christ in Christmas prefer not to acknowledge that the date of said holiday was an attempt to displace Sol Invictus, the Roman (therefore pagan) celebration of the invincible sun.  The Romans, like other ancient peoples, celebrated the return of light, albeit slowly, from darkness.  While teaching at Nashotah House a colleague mentioned being “almost pagan” in the eagerness for the return of light.  You can strike the “almost.”  Deep down we all look for signs of hope in dark times, whether Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.  “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah rejoiced, have seen light.  Sometimes light comes from an unexpected quarter.

There are two high circulation Christian magazines: Christianity Today and The Christian Century.  The latter is more progressive and was launched as an answer to the former.  One of the founders of Christianity Today was Billy Graham and its readership is largely evangelical.  Just yesterday Christianity Today ran an editorial stating the opinion that Trump should be removed from office.  If I were a card-carrying member of the Republican Church, I’d be trembling.  Long touted as “Trump’s base” evangelical Christians have found themselves besieged by the flagrant and constant contradictions their party has thrown them.  Fear of divorce was enough to keep at least one woman I know in an abusive relationship for years.  Now a thrice-married, philandering man who pays hush money to keep his affairs secret is upheld as the new Messiah.  Many of us who grew up evangelical were certain that their old tribe simply wouldn’t cotton onto a straw man.  But  cotton they did.  They’ve become the very lint in his miserly pockets.

Those encrusted with hardcore hatred, of course, will not be swayed.  They’ve found a poster boy who says it’s okay to claim white male supremacy.  They can pick their political issues (usually having to do with protecting the unborn or the right to shoot those already born) and they can be certain that this protean protestant will have their posteriors.  Their leadership, however, has begun to show itself clearsighted.  Christianity Today is no friend of liberal Christianity.  The editorial makes it clear that Democrats had it in for Trump from the beginning.  There is, however, absolutely clear evidence of his crimes.  Even as southern senators state outright that they have no interest in seeing a fair trial, their base is speaking up.  Tonight is the longest night of the year.  Tomorrow it will be a little bit lighter than today.  At this time of year we fervently hope that the light will continue to grow.

Christmas Lights

How many people read a blog on a major holiday?  The process of writing takes no vacations, however, and I often think of holidays as a time to write.  It doesn’t really matter if anyone reads it; writing is our witness to the cosmos that “Kilroy was here.”  Even if most of us have no idea who Kilroy was.  So I find myself awake earlier than most children on Christmas morning.  My long habit of rising early to catch the bus hasn’t been easy to break.   I creep down the stairs and water the tree before turning on its colorful lights.  I make a cup of coffee and wash the dishes left in the sink after a festive Christmas Eve.  And I think.  There’s always the thinking.

The meaning of Christmas, as the holiday classic tells us, eludes Charlie Brown.  Linus van Pelt gives one rendition—that of the Gospel of Luke—as the canonical meaning, but in my experience it shifts during a lifetime.  Christmas, after all, is one of a host of solstice celebrations.  My thinking these days is that it’s all about light.  Shimmering angels, glowing stars, light coming into the darkness.  These ideas seem to have, for the most part, Zoroastrian origins, but they’ve been thoroughly appropriated and, in true American style, commercialized.  The news headlines read how disappointed retailers always are.  The take could’ve been bigger.  Capitalism relies on Christmas to make the third quarter.  Light in the darkness, in its own distorted way.

As I sit for these quiet moments in the glow of only a tree, I think of those for whom the holiday has become a kind of disappointment.  Not a cheery Christmas thought, I know, but an honest one.  As families grow and diversify the childhood Christmas of excited children scrambling under the tree to excavate the next gift for me starts to fade.  Our economic system separates, and the dearth of days off around the holidays makes travel back to childhood homes difficult.  We do the best we can, but the fact is the sixties (speaking for me) are over.  Our reality is colder and darker than it used to be.  I part the curtains and look for any sign of dawn.  It will be a few hours yet before the sun brightens this winter sky, but then, that’s what the holiday has come to mean for me.  At least this year, it is the hope of light returning.  And that, alone, makes it a holiday.

Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

All Is Calm

For those who prefer their solstice celebrations in Christian flavor, today’s Christmas Eve. As various denominations warn us to keep Christ in Christmas, secular NORAD provides a radar tracker to follow Santa through the skies. One hopes he’ll be cautious over North Korea this year. He may skip the White House altogether. And yet some will insist that there was no Christmas before Christ. But there was. Celebrations of the lengthening of the days began when humans reached temperate zones, at the very least. Prehistoric monuments throughout the British Isles were aligned with the sun’s position at solstices even before the Bible was scribbled on its first bit of parchment in warmer climes far away. We eagerly await the light.

Many religious traditions tell of that light within. Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and some Asian religions focus on the divine spark, or secular light, within humankind. We are light-bearers, no matter what our religion. Back in my Nashotah House days, when Evening Prayer was a communal, daily expectation, the hymn Phos Hilaron, “gladsome light,” or, in the more liturgical mode, “O gracious light,” was the part that moved me most. We observe the coming of darkness with the hope that light might somehow continue. When days grow brief our hope grows fervent that the light will miraculously return. That it does so by the working of nature makes it no less of a wonder. We have been living in nighttime, and that light within us seems to flag at the persistent gloom. Then solstice. Christmas Eve captures that light in angelic voices.

Those who insist it’s all fake—the Tiny Tim crutch of feeble minds—need only look at NORAD today. The defense system built to keep the northern hemisphere safe from the endless winter of the nuclear species today shows a mythical object streaming across the stars with good will and cheer. Not just for Americans. Not just for Christians. Not just for true believers. No, Christmas Eve, the solstice, is for all people. Not just men. All people. Perhaps I’ve let my guard down just a little, and I’m letting my naiveté show just a bit much, but I do believe in that light. It may be that the tilt of the planet’s axis makes it inevitable, but a night when shepherds are startled and a woman brings hope to the entire world, we bask in what we deem a silent and holy night, knowing dawn will bring a longer day. And hopefully a world at peace.

Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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Solstices

Most cultures outside of the tropics, where the difference in lengths of days is noticeable and portentous, there is a celebration of the winter solstice. This day, of all in the year, is the shortest and tomorrow there will be more light than there was today. That light will continue to grow until the summer solstice when the slow decline back to darkness begins. Religions have their rituals for a reason, and the slow turn of the seasons is perhaps behind all major holidays, in some way. So as the seasons shift, we look for signs of light. And what a portentous year it has been. When we open the Monday morning paper to find out that the wrong Miss Universe (as if earth corners the market on beauty) was crowned, it rings of unspeakable darkness. Is it not equally dark that we still parade women before the camera to judge them by their appearance? Is it not a lack of light that says women have to flash thigh and cleavage in order to be as important as the tuxedo-covered males who ogle them? The days are short, my friends.

And if we can rip our eyes from one stageshow to another, the Republican candidates continue to engage in a battle of silliness that would make Caligula smile. Have we lost our ability to face serious issues? Just the other day I was commenting to my wife that publishing has a difficult time because reading is something few people seriously engage any more. I hope I’m not coming across as judgmental, since I like a good diversion as much as the next guy. Still, thinking through something that is not simple, where the answers are always more gray than either black or white, is becoming more essential in surviving a culture that finds what razor you shave with more important that how many people an assault rifle can take out at one go. For a nation with access to the resources we have, shouldn’t we think of ways of getting people to engage with sustained thought once they leave college? To bring back the light?

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Light comes in many forms. The sun is a symbol as well as an astronomical body. Artificial light, however, predominates in a world where nature tells us to slow down once in a while and sleep a little more. Only at the equator are all things equal. In days when it is suggested that reflecting photons in a mirror might conceivably produce real photons, and thus more light for the universe, I find it hard to sleep. Too much is happening for any one person to keep track of it all, and to have my few hours of sunlight occluded by the shenanigans of the media and its factotums feels like the longest night is indeed upon us. It is, for those with hope, also the beginning of light.

Away in a Manger?

The holidays are a time for getting together. At a friend’s house over the weekend, we were talking about nativity scenes. I mentioned a story about how a nativity scene had been missing the infant Jesus and he said he’d be right back with a solution. I have to admit that I’ve never seen Sweet Baby Jesus porter before. “Place that in your manger,” he said. I assume this is a seasonal brew, intended to draw the semi-religious toward a kind of holiday cheer. Now, blasphemy in a bottle is nothing new. In fact it’s quite common, I expect. Nevertheless, a bottle that says “One sip and you’ll claim the name” might be offering a salvation that it simply can’t deliver.

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Growing up, Christmas never had any connection with drinking. My father was an alcoholic, and inviting this particular spirit to the holidays seemed misguided. Still, I recognize that in many cultures tipples were a way of coping with the excessive periods of darkness. Even in these days of ubiquitous artificial lights, I find that the darkness just outside bears a considerable weight. We festoon our houses with colorful lights to ward off the night. We prepare special foods to take our minds from the bleakness outside the window. And yes, some turn to Sweet Baby Jesus to offer its own kind of shine.

The holidays mean many things to many people. The commercial aspects appeal less and less as the years go by, but having some time off work to be with family and collect my thoughts grows more important each year. What makes a day holy, I expect, is that you have things that are otherwise difficult to find. Life, for many, is a long series of denials of what they really want. When the holidays come, they indulge. Who am I to begrudge someone else of what makes their ordinary days sacred? Who indeed?

When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.

All Things Being Equal

Today the light and darkness are equal. The equinox is the great equalizer of the year, the day that reminds us summer’s ebullience is always, and ever will only be, temporary. From this day forth, for six months, night will dominate day. Religions the world over have offered responses to the increasing darkness. Autumnal festivals are among the most poignant as we can see the light diminishing, but we know nothing we can do will prevent it. Time alone cures this growing tenebrous atmosphere, until, as the solstice arrives, we dance, and sing, and drink, and burn candles to encourage the light to return. Return it does, on our universe’s ever rotating axis, bringing us around once again to when days lengthen and we turn our thoughts toward shallower things.

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The ember months, September, October (by association), November, December, each with an increasing sense of solemnity, invite us to read. Today begins Banned Book Week. I’ll be posting about banned books since, although my books deemed fit to print are so mundane as to offend no one, I stand in solidarity with any writer who has ever been told that her or his book is too violent, sexy, or depraved to be read. What thoughts are too dangerous to think? Religions will tell you, and so will pseudo-religions. Thoughts, however, are not so easily stopped. As an editor, I am a gatekeeper of sorts. Still, I know as an author that those I turn aside will persist. They will find their publishers. Their words will not be banned.

As an erstwhile writer I know that some of myself resides in each work clacked out on this keyboard. Those lucky enough to court editors with their efforts find the larger readerships. Some authors don’t even write their own books any more. Anyone can be imitated. The truly original, however, will always end up on someone’s banned book list. Our minds resist being challenged. We don’t want assumptions to be wrong. It’s too much work to have to think through all of this. It is easier to ban books than to have to try to comprehend them. As the darkness increases over the coming months, I will stockpile candles and light bulbs and huddle down next to a stack of books, secure in knowing that most of them have offended somebody along the way. And reading those books will only cause the light to grow.

Make Light

Despite the war on Christmas, it came. To be honest, I haven’t yet gone to the window this morning to see if smoky remains litter the street of my small town, but there is something decidedly positive inside me that tells me that it’s Christmas. Religious holiday or not, any celebration that can make people feel at peace for even just a day is worth it. Christmas has always been a time of sharing. Not to exclude our southern hemispheric and equatorial companions, but the darkest time of year requires something to lift the human spirits. I wonder if even the Romans back in their salubrious Mediterranean climate felt a bit of a pinch at this time of year as they planned the festivity that marked the shortest day of the year. Without precise timekeeping, it is difficult to know exactly when the solstice is—to me for about a fortnight is looks dark pretty much all the time. I catch the bus to work in the dark, arrive at work before sunrise, leave work in the dusk and by the time I’m on the bus home it is dark. These few days around the solstice I know that I could use a little break.

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How like human nature to take such a wonderful concept and turn it into something to fight over. I don’t know the religious preferences of everyone at work. I suspect a large number might be Jewish, and some are likely Muslims. Many, I suspect, have no religious leanings at all. Yet today they all have a gift, tree or not. They are paid for not working. The gift might be extra sleep, or it might be the light that neighbors shed in the darkness with gaudy displays of Christmas lights, or holiday lights, or just colorful lights—what is the difference, really?

The whole concept of a war on Christmas has to do with feelings of superiority. Those who take up the war cry feel proprietary rights to a holiday their religion did not invent. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The best guess scholars have is that it was in April, around about the time we celebrate Easter, I suppose. Christmas was despised and scorned by many Christians until the nineteenth century, the very ancestors of the conservative factions that claim Christmas as their own banned the holiday for its papist trappings and pagan undertones. Now they wish to claim Christmas as uniquely theirs. Like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, I put a hand to my ear and learn something new. Christmas is for everyone. Any holiday that can bring peace to this troubled mind for a few hours is a day to be shared.

Darkest Night

One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.

In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.

Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.

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Astronomical Chances

I am sure that I am not alone in the sense of relief that the solstice has finally arrived. Light will gradually begin to increase as the northern hemisphere slowly wobbles back toward the sun. And if I didn’t have another final exam to administer a little later this morning I would’ve stayed up to see the total lunar eclipse last night. Conditions were perfect, if cold, for viewing the event in New Jersey. NASA states that the last time a full lunar eclipse occurred on the winter solstice was in 1638. Those of us who survived to see last night’s events, whether with our eyes on the skies or on the Internet, have witnessed a rare astronomical coincidence. So rare, I’m sure, that some people have taken it as a sign.

This is the season for signs in the sky. The Gospel of Matthew narrates how Zoroastrian astrologers followed a star to Bethlehem. Over the years many astronomers have puzzled over what this anomaly might have been. (They might benefit from reading a little mythology now and again.) While still in Wisconsin my family went to see a University of Wisconsin planetarium show on the subject, and these family-fun science-and-religion public-relations events are anything but rare. It is in the spirit of the season.

Ancient civilizations bestowed upon us the gift of looking for signs in the sky. In antiquity’s three-tiered universe, the gods literally lived “up there,” so portentous occurrences above our heads were a bellwether of divine intention. Religious specialists had to be able to interpret the omens in the air. That fascination has remained with humanity ever since, no matter how rational we’ve become. While driving home in the relatively developed region of New Brunswick a few weeks ago, I saw a meteor. This was remarkable because the light pollution of multiple streetlights along with the volume of raging traffic headlights was intense. My eyes were glued to the taillights before me when it fell. It felt like an epiphany – it was the brightest meteor I’d ever seen, and over the years I suppose I’ve seen my fair share. It left me with the feeling that something momentous had occurred, an emotion that persisted for a few days. No wonder ancient astronomers found the night sky so impressive. The only negative aspect of the lengthening of the days is the corresponding shortening of the nights.

Solstice Now!

Who owns the solstice? Whoever it is, I wish we could just get it over with. The darkness falls before I step into my 5 p.m. class. It is dark when I drive home. The next morning, leaving for my 8:30 a.m. class, I drive to school in the dark. Back at Nashotah House a colleague once said his wife became “almost pagan” in her yearning to pass the winter solstice and head toward the time of year when light prevails over darkness. My wife pointed out a CNN story concerning a New Jersey billboard sponsored by American Atheists. The billboard, just on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel into New York, shows the star of Bethlehem, the manger and the wise men. The inscription reads: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season celebrate REASON.” Naturally, motorists are up in arms. Who owns the solstice?

Before the Thanksgiving leftovers even hit the fridge, Christmas season has begun. Santa always ends the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it official. Since we are capitalists, we do what the red-suited captain of industry says: shop. As long ago as A Charlie Brown Christmas complaints of the commercialization of Christmas have reverberated through the media. Personal properties and billboards enjoin us to “keep Christ in Christmas” and remember “the reason for the season.” Economists tell us to spend more to assist the sluggish economy. Meanwhile the light continues to fade; the days grow darker. Why confuse the issue with religiosity? Why not just spend some money on others, feel the release of endorphins, and be thankful?

Nobody knows when Jesus was born. The church selected December to celebrate the event because the shortest day of the year, for those north of the equator, had long been a time of fervent wishes for the return of light. The first-century Christian rivals, the Gnostics, believed in the continual, literal struggle between light and darkness. When sidelined by Orthodox Christianity, the torch was taken up by those who celebrated Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Hogmanay, Yule, Sol Invictus or any number of other winter festivals. Christmas was a relative late-comer to the celebrations that welcome the resurrection of the sun. So drivers from New Jersey should take it easy. The solstice is everybody’s holiday. I just wish that whoever’s in charge would give us all a little more light.