We turned a heavenly corner yesterday. Today there will be a longer iota of daylight than there was the day before. Just as I rue the summer solstice in June when we spin toward darkness, so do I celebrate December 21—the winter solstice. Oh, I’m not fooled. I know there will be plenty of cold, dark nights ahead, but isn’t it comforting to know that with each passing day, we’re tilting closer to the sun? It’s a mental hurdle that makes winter’s receding wake just a bit more tolerable.
To make this year’s astral events even more exciting, two days ago, Jupiter and Saturn came within 0.1 degrees of each other to form the first observable close alignment of two planets since St. Francis of Assisi died nearly 800 years ago. I suppose it’s even possible that this great conjunction of heavenly bodies bore some resemblance to the fabled guiding star the three wise men followed to Bethlehem on that silent night so long ago. I know it’s just a story, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a darned good one.
Anyway, it’s somehow comforting to know we’re on the mend. 2020 has been an awful year and I, for one, will be glad to see it in our collective rear view mirror. There’s a lot to look forward to in the year to come: the promise of a pandemic-ending vaccine, a breath of cleaner, fresher air in our nation’s capital, the restoration of old, familiar ways. As our days lengthen again, maybe we’ll finally be able to hug a friend, share a restaurant meal, or go to the theater. Remember theaters?
But back to the winter solstice: that moment when the sun touches the Tropic of Capricorn, only to bounce off it and begin its semi-annual journey back toward the Tropic of Cancer. The shortest day, the longest night. But as hopeful as that journey sounds, it’s important to remember that this solstice also marks the official beginning of winter. I guess that makes December 21 a mixed blessing: both the onset of cold winter and the turning toward the promise of long sunny days and plenty of warmth six months hence.
The holidays are a lot like that: plenty of joy to be sure but, at the same time, some sadness, too: the memory of loved ones no longer with us; our own unmet yearnings and expectations, lingering stress. A Chinese philosopher might say this is evidence of the dualism of the universe—its yin and yang—the way seemingly opposite or contradictory forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, even interdependent in the natural world. Sometimes, it feels like a juggler’s balancing act but the truth is we can hold two seemingly opposite ideas in our minds at the same time, both true.
The term “solstice” is derived from two Latin words: “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still). This is because at the moment of solstice, the angle between the sun’s rays and the plane of the Earth’s equator (its declination) appear to stand still. Don’t worry: that’s just an illusion because as the sun’s gradual decrease moves slowly into reverse, the noontime elevation of the sun seems to stay the same for a few days before and after the actual winter solstice. For those of you keeping track, this year that moment actually occurred at 5:02 am (EST) on December 21st.
So, there you have it. We’re once again on the road to recovery. It may take a few days, even a few months, but I believe better days are coming—longer, lighter days. In the meantime, I wish you all the joys of this most wondrous, marvelous season.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com