A Yankee Notebook

December 21, 2015


MONTPELIER – I’ll always be thankful that Miss Bennett, our eighth-grade science teacher, took the trouble to get somewhere a working model of the solar system. Made mostly of brass, it didn’t show the sun to scale, of course, but it did revolve the planets around it at their relative speeds, and with their poles aligned appropriately. I can’t speak for the others in the class, but that model has always helped me visualize the earth’s position in space vis-à-vis its source of life and heat.

This is never more important than right now, when we seem at the nadir of our annual elliptical trip, with the darkness descending early in the afternoon and retreating late in the morning, with the beams, if any, shed by the rising sun entering by the south windows. It’s easy to believe in a great celestial being clucking over the shadowed situation of the majority of human and other mammals in the North and sympathizing, “Okay, let’s get that dark side attended to, shall we?” And directly we begin to swoop toward the vernal equinox, three months away, and the summer solstice, only three more. A lovely prospect!

For many millennia of our existence, human beings couldn’t conjure the image of Earth as a moving ball zooming through space around a relatively stable sun. It was obvious to them that the sun instead moved: rising and setting over a stable plane of existence. When it diminished or advanced, it seemed the result of supernatural activity, motivated – since we have long considered ourselves the favorite child of the universe – by pleasure or displeasure at human activity. Igniting sacrifices or hurling virgins into volcanoes, if such were done at the right time, seemed to work.

But scientific fiddling is as powerful an impulse in us as is faith in the supernatural. Some bright prehistoric observers began to line up heavy stones to mark what seemed to them to be the regular oscillations of the fiery god of the sky. Sure enough, within a few years they could say with reasonable certainty, “This is the shortest day of the year, this the longest.” But science has never trumped the supernatural; folks still sacrificed, and obsessed over upsetting the solar apple cart.

I couldn’t help but notice years ago, when I was studying German, that the words for “die” and “starve” are the same – sterben. A little search into the probable dates the words came into common usage indicated that starvation was the most common cause of death in northern climates at that time. While mammals like the ground squirrels and bears could sock themselves away for long stretches, predators like wolves, cats, and people couldn’t, with the predictable result, especially during winters following lean years.

The cold, as disagreeable and sometimes fatal as it was, was at least something they could work with. The darkness, not so; it would go away when it would, no matter what. But they could at least create their own light, weak and temporary though it might be. Hence the tradition of the winter solstice bonfire. I’ve been to several, even in this modern day, and can attest to the effect of the bright fire, the heat, and the sparks rising into the night, that tseem to transform the surrounding blackness into a malevolent creature held at bay by the flames.

Other traditions have followed. The Swedes, for example – Stockholm lies at roughly the same latitude as St. Petersburg – celebrated the winter solstice on December 13, its date in the old Julian calendar. During the 1700s they adopted the Sicilian Saint Lucia (whose name is derived from the Latin for “light”), and in effect Christianized the old pagan midwinter festival. It’s still a festival of light, in which parades of young girls in crowns of candles march solemnly and sing, commemorating third-century Saint Lucia’s visits to poor Christians hiding from Roman persecution, with a headdress of candles to leave both hands free for carrying gifts. Her subsequent execution by the Romans was so grisly that catching her hair on fire was the least of her worries.

The Romans, too, celebrated the winter solstice with a period of feasting, good will, and gifts to the poor: Saturnalia, whose name has come to mean “wild revelry and orgy,” and whose object was the same as that of the bonfire – to drive away the darkness. As Roman gods and emperor worship gave way to Christianity by edict of the emperor Constantine in 313, only a decade after Saint Lucias’s martyrdom, the Church sought a way to place the birth of its Savior at the center of a celebratory period. Nobody knows when Christ was supposed to have been born, but we celebrate his nativity just at the winter solstice, where Saturnalia used to be; plus, all its associated images in the Gospels – the star guiding the magi, the heavens blazing with the news to the shepherds, and the first chapter of John, with its frequent references to an unquenchable light – were symbols of hope for not only believers, but for the imminent brightening of the sun, as well.

It’s hard to find any old ethnic group that didn’t celebrate the end of the deepening of darkness and the promise of new light. The Germanic and Scandinavian folks called the winter solstice Juul, which some of us still recognize with a Yule log at the back of the fireplace. Its ashes, when it was consumed, were sprinkled on the fields to ensure a good harvest the coming year. Juulgløg, which accompanied its ceremonial lighting, is reputed to have packed quite a punch.

A day or so ago I e-mailed my friend Larry north of the Arctic Circle to see what he does during the 24-hour darkness. Surely, I thought, that close to Santa’s home base, they must do some special things. But he wrote back. “Don't do much. I think we would celebrate more if it actually started to warm up on the 22nd, but in reality we don't see any noticeable warming until mid-March.” Sigh...some folks just have no sense of occasion.

Photo by Willem lange