Trevor Hancock, 21 December 2022
Based on remarks at the Gorge Tillicum Community’s ‘Lights on the Gorge’ event, where children are an important part of the audience
Today is Midwinter’s Day, and today the sun stands still!
Now that may sound a bit worrying, even a little scary, but, it is actually very good news. You see, for six long months the sun has risen and set a bit further south each day, so each day the nights have grown longer, the days have grown shorter, the weather colder.
But now, finally, the sun will stop moving south. It will stand still, and then it will start its annual trek back to the north again, bringing shorter nights, longer days and warmer weather. Then comes Midsummer’s Day, when once again the sun will stand still, and then start heading south, beginning the whole cycle again.
The fact the sun stands still twice a year – on Midwinter’s and Midsummer’s Days – is what gives us one of the other names for this day – Solstice. Why Solstice, what does that mean? Well, it comes from Latin; sol – the sun – and sistere – to stand still.
It is reassuring to know the sun stood still this time last year, and the year before that, and the year before that – way back into the depths of history. The ancient ones knew it, they were keen observers of the sun and the moon and the stars, more so than most of us are today.
Think back a few thousand years, before coal and oil and electricity, before towns and cities and street lights. Imagine how dark it was, how ever-present was the the sky at night, the vast arc of the Milky Way, the moon, the stars, the moving stars that are the planets, perhaps the Northern Lights. – how impressive, how awe-inspiring it all was.
But imagine also how scary such darkness must have been, full of predators and scary monsters and things that go bump in the night. And for half a year our ancestors would have seen the days getting shorter, the nights longer and darker and colder, the crops all harvested, nothing growing, hunting difficult, their animals shivering and barely surviving. The winter was a time of hardship.
So wouldn’t you long for the end of that long, slow slide towards darkness and cold? Wouldn’t you long for the turning of the year, the day when the sun stops its southward drift, when – even though we know there are still cold, dark, hard days ahead – the days start to get longer, the darkness starts to go away.
But wouldn’t you also worry that perhaps this year the wheel won’t turn, the slide into darkness and cold will continue, that the light will never return. Wouldn’t you pray for the return of the light, make offerings to ensure the wheel turns.
So wouldn’t you celebrate that night – the shortest night, the turning of the year – with its promise of longer, warmer days to come, of spring and summer, of new crops and easier living, even knowing that the wheel of time will keep turning, that in its turn the longest day will come and the cycle will start all over again. Wouldn’t you light fires – and perhaps jump over them – wouldn’t you light the lamps, wouldn’t you feast a bit, and drink a bit, and sing a bit, and dance a bit – perhaps even a lot!
But all that hinges on being strongly aware of and connected to nature, to the land and the waters and the sky, and to what Indigenous people call ‘all our relations’. Sadly, that is no longer the case. There is a famous and true story from Los Angeles at the time of the 1994 earthquake, when power failed and the lights went out. People saw a strange glowing mass in the sky, and they were worrried, some were scared and some even went so far as to call the emergency services to report it – was the sky falling, were aliens attacking, what was going on?
Well, you guessed it – for the first time in their lives, people were seeing the Milky Way, and they didn’t know what it was. It is a powerful example of one of the great tragedies of our age, and an important contributor to the many challenges we face; our huge disconnect from nature, from Mother Earth, from all that sustains us.
We need to re-establish that connection with nature if we have any hope of addressing our challenges. We need to learn again to respect and cherish and protect nature, to make peace with nature, as the UN Secretary General has put it.
In particular, we need to ensure that our children and grandchildren have a strong connection to nature – why else would they respect and cherish and protect and live in peace with nature.
One important place to begin is to re-connect to the great cycles of nature, to the summer and winter solstice, to the spring and fall equinoxes – another Latin word, one that means equal nights, the two times a year when day and night are of equal length.
Which is why we are here, to mark the Winter Solstice, the turning of the year, when the days start to lengthen again, when the light starts to return.
A Happy Solstice to you all!