Sun Stands Still

Green Man in the cold morning light

Today, 20 December 2021, the sun appears to stand still at its most southern point. We call this period of slow change, where day length changes incrementally and then not at all, the solstice, the “sun pause”. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the winter solstice, the time of the longest nights and shortest days. In my part of the world day length is just 9 hours and 4 minutes. The solstice is not one day, nor one moment. Here in Vermont, the day length will remain at its shortest for three days. Some places see a sun pause that outlasts the month.

What the solstice actually marks is the sun’s inflection point. Today and tomorrow, the sun’s declination — its apparent position relative to the Earth at noon — is at 23° 26’ south. After tomorrow it will turn around and head north again. Unless you have fancy tools and good marker points (like, say, a strategically placed menhir), it would be difficult to tell the difference between the 21st and the 22nd, but the apparent motion of the sun has carried it one minute of latitude back towards the north by the time it rises on the 22nd. However, the 22nd is also still one of the three shortest days of the year. Just as a point of interest (to number geeks like me anyway), in my part of the world on the 31st the sun is back to the same relative position it occupied two days before St Lucy’s Day, the old solstice. Day length is also the same on the 11th and the 31st, five minutes longer than it is today.

All these are rather subtle changes. Mostly it looks like not much is happening. Hence our ancestors named this time the solstice, the time of pause. The sun is not moving much on the horizon. Shadows and light beams remain highly slanted in the north while they are insubstantial in the south where summer reigns (but not rains…). After the season around the equinox when day length is changing rapidly and weather is chaotic, the solstice changes are hardly noticeable and we have halcyon days for kingfisher nests. It feels like everything is waiting. In the winter, the solstice feels like everything is asleep, dreaming of the return of the sun.

I have seen many people, usually those under the influence of EuroWestern exceptionalism beliefs, claim that our ancestors were frightened of this time of darkness, that sacrifices were offered to sky gods so that the sun would rise again after the longest night of the year. To that I say, Nonsense! For one thing, all those menhirs that still keep accurate calendrical time thousands of years later were built by our “primitive” ancestors. Who today could even conceive of placement, never mind execution of the plan of Newgrange or Chaco Canyon? These were sophisticated people with skills and knowledge that exceed ours. Probably by several orders of magnitude. They knew the sun was rising, and they knew exactly where it would rise, and they knew how to keep track of its path — with architecture and urban planning, no less.

They were not afraid, making offerings of propitiation to angry gods. They may have been somewhat nervous about exhausting food stores. Maybe. But then, in many of these places of advanced calendar keeping, they didn’t store plant-based food that had to last until the next growing season. Food stores were largely their livestock (whether those were in pens like cattle or in free-ranging herds like deer). And of course, in the middle latitudes there is no complete pause in the winter for farming. In fact, the origin of Saturnalia, a midwinter holiday honoring the old god of agriculture, is as a celebration of the winter harvest. No, they were not afraid. They were celebratory, especially in the high latitude regions where “longest night” lasts for weeks. Even in this age of perpetual artificial light, there is solace when the sun finally pokes above the horizon after weeks of twilit days.

In my part of the world, the solstice brings in the cold. The days have been short for weeks, enough time for the soil and water to shed heat stored up in the summer. Fortunately, Earth points away from the sun in the north at the same time that this planet is closest to the sun, so high latitude winters aren’t as brutal as they could be. But it’s cold enough. Today, it was 6°F when I recorded the weather at 9am. Winter may start on November 1, but the cold really takes hold after the secular New Year. January and February are the coldest months, and January sees the most snow in an average winter — though average is broken now and recently we’ve started to see the biggest winter storms after Candlemas, even into April here in New England.

But this is the middle of the rest season, the middle of the time of short days and long nights. It is Midwinter. From tomorrow onward, the days will be lengthening until at some point in late January we’ll actually be able to notice that change. By Candlemas, we’ll be back to the 10-hour days that most plants need to break dormancy. We’ll be able to prepare dinner while the sun is setting, not an hour into the darkness. We’ll start to shake off the sleepiness we’ve been feeling for months. And some of us will be busily planning for the summer growing season. (There are already dog-eared seed catalogs…)

Interestingly, we’ve already seen the earliest sunset come and go. The sun sets a bit later each day in my part of the world after 9 December. However, the latest sunrise is still to come. That starts on the 28th and lasts until 11 January. That should give you indication of just how slowly change happens in these solstice weeks and how gradual the changes are each day. The sun is not “reborn” tomorrow. I’m fairly certain that notion has more to do with emperors and warlords than with any natural phenomena. Those aging despots had to put on a show each year, proving that they were still fit to rule. Hence the Unconquered Sun was renewed at the end of the year, and the reign of the sun’s earthly avatar was revalidated. 

But today is one of the longest nights, and though tomorrow the sun begins to head north again, the cold is seeping through the walls of my old home. I shall be curled up with soup and blankets. There may be candles. There will definitely be music. It is a celebration, after all, a celebration of the hope for a warmer tomorrow… some day soonish.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021