The Daily

for 21 December 2022

Green Man in the cold morning light

Today, 21 December 2022, the sun appears to stand still at its most southern point at 4:48pm. 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 8 hours and 51 minutes. The solstice is not one day, nor one moment. Here in Vermont, the day length will remain at its shortest for three days plus or minus a few seconds. However, some places see a sun pause that outlasts the season.

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.

All these are rather subtle changes. Mostly it looks like not much is happening. Hence our ancestors named this time the solstice, the sun stands still. 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 exceeded 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. The forecast is for below 0°F tomorrow. 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.

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 15 December. However, the latest sunrise is still to come. That starts on the 30th and lasts until 6 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 warm bread 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.

From the Book Cellar

Here are some of my favorite picture books for the winter revels.

A Redwall Winter’s Tale, written by Brian Jacques, illustrated by Christopher Denise (2001, Philomel). This is my favorite winter story. For two decades I’ve been reading it to kids. Never fails to captivate. And for the rest of my life, I will always see the Snow Badger striding across the sky every night of snowfall.

The Winter Solstice, written by Ellen Jackson, illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis (1994, Millbrook Press). A gentle exploration of this season throughout many cultures.

The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice, written by Wendy Pfeffer, illustrated by Jesse Reisch (2003, Dutton Children’s Books). Lots of facts! Written for the youngest readers, this one focuses more on the natural world and has activities at the end.

The Longest Night, written by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Led Lewin (2009, Holiday House). Another one for the youngest readers, this book is wholly set in the natural world with liquid, impressionistic paintings conveying the feeling of enveloping darkness and the joy at the sudden light of morning.

Coyote Solstice, written by Thomas King, illustrated by Gary Clement (2009, Groundwood Books). If you want perspective… Coyote learns about the mall… and decides he likes his ways better.

Solstice: A Mystery of the Season by Jan Adkins (2004, WoodBoat Books). This is a lovely midwinter story of family and longing, set on the Maine coast, some time between ubiquitous outboard motors and the advent of cell phones. This is more a read-aloud story than a picture book, but Adkins’ woodcut illustrations give the story energy and solidity.

Lights of Winter: Winter Celebrations around the World, written by Heather Conrad, illustrated by deForest Walker (2013, Lightport Books). Not the greatest read-aloud but it does convey the breadth and depth of midwinter festivals.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

5 thoughts on “The Daily”

  1. Thanks for the stillness of the longest darkest circadian of our annual orbit words to lighten our sleepiness 

    Sent from my iPhone


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    Liked by 1 person

      1. I was not sending a quote from Mollison. I sent you to address of my piece on the solstice. The quote was what I am using this month for my signature. I read you columns daily and simply wanted to share my monthly thoughts. The winter solstice.

        I am a former American, former botanist and professor, a professional curmudgeon farming in Italy in my dotage.

        Zia Gallina For the Wild! “If we become extinct because of factors beyond our control, then we can at least die with pride in ourselves, but to create a mess in which we perish by our own inaction makes nonsense of our claims to consciousness and morality.’ Bill Mollison


        Liked by 1 person

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