Forty-five minutes ago the clock rolled over and it officially became December 21st, the winter solstice. Although my calendar says December 20th was the first day of winter, I can’t help but always think of the 21st as being the longest night of the year.
I realize, given the inaccuracies inherent in our system of measuring the passage of time, that dates jump around a bit. When your year is 365 days and a quarter long, there are bound to be some variables that even a leap year can’t correct. Since the difference in the length of the day on the 20th or 21st is so minimal, I don’t feel too badly for adhering to the date I’ve always associated with the event.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m about to go out and enact some archaic ritual to commemorate the event – I’ll leave that to those who feel the need to do those things. It’s just that I’ve always found this time of year to be extremely magical in a way that has nothing to do with the Christmas season.
One of the things I appreciate about living in a small city is the fact that there are very few small building to cut off my view of the sky and the ability to see large swaths of it at once. Because of this, I get to experience one of the great pleasures of living in an area where there is a noticeable shift in the earth’s position in terms of the sun and the quality of light.
Near the end of August is when I usually first begin to notice that the days have started to run out of steam and the sun has started to set earlier. By the time the end of October roles around and we set the clocks back an hour, the sun has pretty much set by six o’clock in the evening.
It’s not until near the end of November that the real magic begins. As the earth has spun on it axis and taken the part of the world I live in further below the sun’s line of sight, the quality of our light has started to change. Not only do we receive less of it over the course of a twenty-four hour period, what we do receive comes to us at an angle such that it seems to cut across the path of the planet instead of shining right on to us.
I’m sure people who are of equal distance south of the equator to our position to the north will experience something similar, but I also think there’s something about the quality of the light in the Northern parts of the world that isn’t replicated anywhere else. Perhaps it’s the cold air creating a thinning of the atmosphere, I don’t know. All I do know is that it’s one of the reason’s I’d never move to a place where there’s no winter.
It’s the shadows that are the first indication of the change. With the sun tracking lower in the sky every day, shadows are exaggerated in their elongation until they become as much part of the scenery as the object that cast them. Walk along beside a stand of trees and you are walking through them as well beside them. Or you are seeing their shadows prostrate, while your second self steps from one to the next, merging and separating, merging and separating, until you lose track of which is moving and which is stationary.
You often hear people complain about the brightness of the winter sun; they’re talking about how the sun is shining off snow that has accumulated over a period of time, and been subjected to a deep freeze. These are the glass-like conditions that, when combined with the angle of the sun, makes the need for sunglasses or eye protection paramount. If you are around vast fields of snow, snow blindness can be a potential hazard. In fact, winter is usually the only time I find I’ll need or want to wear sunglasses for just that reason. Well, maybe not snow blindness but the harshness of the glare at any rate.
It’s in the days leading up to the twenty first of December, before too much snow has fallen and the temperature has had a chance to really dip below the freezing point too far that I’m talking about. It’s those days when the sun has risen only so that he can begin to set, when it feels like it’s permanent twilight – then the feeling you’ve entered into another world becomes really strong.
If somehow you are able to get away from the elements that distinguish the twenty-first century – traffic, buildings, and noise – to walk amidst the quiet of some trees or by the water, it feels like you’ve stepped out of any one particular time. The light has been watered down enough on these days that shadows gather at the edges of everything, smoothing sharp edges into soft curves so that distinctiveness is blurred, and objects seen at a distance become almost indistinguishable from their backgrounds.
I can see why earlier societies could believe this time was the end of the year as everything faded from view gradually each day earlier and earlier. The date that marked the reversal of that process, the longest night of the year when you could almost swear the sun wasn’t going to return, would be the day you celebrate the end of one year and the start of a new one.
To them it was as if a new sun was being born on the midwinter day and the light would gradually start to return. It’s an experience we can still share today if we take the time to look around see what is happening to the world beyond the rush of the artificial season we have created.
I personally find it much more satisfying to watch the year end in the physical world than on the calendar. In particular I enjoy the time leading up to the solstice because it’s one of the moments of magic that bridge the span of years between us and those who lived on earth thousands of years earlier, and who watched the world do much the same things it does today.