Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the winter solstice/‘holiday season’ and a lunar eclipse here that day
I missed the last as it began around 2 a.m. No matter: I saw one a few years ago and a partial solar one more than 30 years ago, which was, to use that overspent word, awesome.

Of course northern Europeans have long tried to cheer themselves up on the darkest day of the year.
As long as there have been people on this planet, there have been celebrations at this time of year, celebrations geared to coaxing the sun to come back, or to conquering the demonic forces that have kidnapped nature, or to beseeching a heroic god to battle winter on our behalf. Throughout the world, people lit bonfires at this time of year, a practice we still echo in the Christmas lights that decorate our streets: these are the darkest days, and we need to shine light to survive it.

And back in the day, it was too difficult to keep cattle through the winter, so many herdsmen killed their animals at this time of year, the last time fresh meat was available for a haul. And this is the first time wines and beers that have been fermenting from the fall are ready, so it was natural that celebrations this time of year involved these foods.

The calendar has evolved a lot over time. In much of Europe in the Middle Ages, winter began on Nov. 1 and lasted through Feb. 1, a system that smartly places the solstice in the center of the season. In this system, Dec. 21 marks midwinter; as summer was shifted too, the summer solstice, June 21, was Midsummer’s Day, leading to Shakespeare’s play occurring on the summer solstice, when magical things happen. The pre-Julian Roman calendar placed the solstice on Dec. 25, a day Romans devoted to celebrating the Unconquered Sun; in 336 A.D. this date was formally selected by the Pope as Christmas. Saturnalia was celebrated at this time too, a wild festival of drinking and debauchery; Saturn was the god of the harvest, and his symbol was the scythe, that sickle carried by Father Time – that’s Saturn the cartoonists all draw on New Year’s Eve.

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