The Wandering Sun
[This essay, in longer form, appeared originally in The New Hampshire Times.]
In Pre-Christian Rome they called it the Saturnalia and celebrated it with wine, sex, topsy-turvy gayety and mad merrymaking. For a week the normal course of events was set aside. No wars were fought, nothing important bought or sold. Slaves sat in their masters' chairs, served by their masters as the days grew shorter towards the solstice. Roman literature, and even early Christian writing, speaks of the excesses of the Saturnalia. Ruled by its mock-king, the Lord of Misrule, the Saturnalia was an inane carnival given to pleasure and the temporary flaunting of convention.
Another year had come and gone and despite the psychic exhaustion generated by the excesses of an empire expanding beyond the limits of control, the Roman world still seemed to hang together. But for that week between December 17 and December 25 a period of wild laxness was licensed, parties and foolishness and role reversals heralded that strange moment when one year dies and the next is born. Citizens possessing more jaded and deviant appetites could find satisfaction in the even wilder solstice doings of the cult of Dionysius—outlawed by the ever-paranoid lords of the empire because of its popularity and anti-social decadence.
But two thousand years ago the Saturnalia had already lost touch with its roots as a celebration of the cycle of the earth's fecundity. Other cultures less sophisticated than the Roman continued to celebrate this darkest time of the year with bonfires. invocations to the sun, and rituals symbolizing the return of the sun's light.
The solstice is a natural fact of cosmic order. It was there before we were. and it will be there after our species shifts its genetic gears and moves on to some other life-form. Beneath the seasonal hype and hustle, the ruts of social and religious tradition, the peculiarities of particular cultures and the press of world events, the planets blithely swing through their orbits and the solstice returns yearly. No matter what we call it, whatever we do this time of year by way of celebration was begat in humanity's original worry about the winter solstice.
Waterloo Road runs east and west in front of my house, along the Warner River through a narrow valley on the shadows' side of the Mink Hills. Before the sun rises on December mornings into the pale blue gap between a bank of clouds and the horizon, its orange light lies first on the crown and shoulder of a little mountain called Chandler just a mile south of our house. During the summer the sun rises too far north on the horizon to light the mountain like this and so, after a week of overcast mornings at the end of November and another week of mornings when I left the house before the sun had risen, this first light on the mountain takes me by surprise.
For weeks, of course, I have been dimly aware each day that the daylight has been weaker, the darkness gathering more quickly on the drive home. Vague feelings of discomfort and anxiety trouble me as this darkness closes in at both ends of the day.
I like the darkness of a summer night, when the dew releases the smells of the earth and grasses, but these long December nights with their crystalline starlight give me the willies.
At the same time I see that the gathering darkness is working its changes on me, just as it has worked them on the land. Suddenly it seems the dozens of tasks I left undone from summer are not so vital to the success or failure of my life. I let them go. They can wait until the spring. Instead, I find myself turning inwards, cleaning out my desk, thinking about friends I haven't seen in too long and writing projects which have lain dormant for months. Like the sunlight on Chandler Mountain, this re-direction of my own energies comes as a surprise. I am less independent of the turn of the seasons than I might have imagined.
Each morning for the past two weeks I've been sitting by the wood stove to drink a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise, though more often than not all I've seen for my trouble is the progressive lightening of a heavy grey sky. On those days when the sun itself has appeared, its rays stream in the window on the southeast side of the house and daily reach deeper and deeper into the back of the house. I've watched the sun rise first over the edge of a pine grove, then, several days later over the roof of a neighboring house, and now over a low hill south of the river. Its path seems to be dropping away from the earth like the spiral of an orange's skin as the knife peels it away from the fruit.
If this were my first experience with the phenomenon, I might have great cause for alarm. There is nothing in the observation of the sun's daily slippage south to suggest that the process will be halted or reversed. At this rate, if nothing changes, I estimate that by February the sun will be rising over the eastern shoulder of Chandler Mountain and setting on the western. By spring it will flicker briefly like an airport beacon on the mountain top and then disappear forever. It is a particularly, perhaps exclusively, human fear, this annual concern with old Sol's faithfulness to his duties on the planet.
On December 21, if the sun's rising is not obscured by clouds, and if my good intentions prove sufficient to wake me in time, I plan to trace on the back wall of the sitting room the outline of whatever shadow the sun's light casts.
That tracing will remain like a low-water mark as a record of this shortest day of the year, next to the door-jamb where we've been marking our kids' heights as they grow.
Brief as my recognition of the solstice will be, it is nevertheless in keeping with what all ancient astronomical observations and celebrations everywhere and in every era have meant to do—remind ourselves of our place in the universe, swinging around the sun through space on this little ball of living dirt and water, utterly dependent on that fat hot star, our gravitational minder, for the light and heat that give us life.
Christmas, with ist attendant imagery of light, rebirth, peace, and renewal is only the latest overlay on a tradition of solstice celebrations which extends back into the caverns of prehistory. Much of what we have come to think of as quintessentially Christmas is derived from ancient and distinctly non-Christian sources.
Take, for example, the case of Mithraisim, a religion of the common man which appeared in Rome at about the same time as Christianity, traveling across the Mediterranean on slave ships around the time when Jesus of Nazareth was preaching a gospel of peace that nevertheless sounded like sedition to the Roman overlords.
Mithra was originally a minor Persian deity who, for some obscure reason by 75 A.D. had acquired the job title of sun-god, the Creator, Sol Invictus himself. His fan-base had grown to thousands of Romans who celebrated his birthday—that is, the birthday of the Sun—on December 25, the date of the solstice on the Julian calendar.
Mithra had been sent to earth, according to his followers, by his father Ahura-Mazda to redeem mankind, to offer eternal life and salvation. Before leaving earth, Mithra partook of a Last Supper, a rite his adepts continued to hold after his departure, symbolically eating his body and drinking his blood. Mithraists purified themselves with baptism, believed in a Trinity, the eternal soul, and heaven and hell. Sound familiar?
But the followers of Mithra did not allow women into the club, and that may have been their fatal mistake in their competition with the new Christian church for recruits. And by 200 A.D. other unsavory aspects of the cult were beginning to appear, such as baptism in the blood of a bull, which marked the religion as distinctly different from the somewhat gentler Christian doctrines.
Around 300 A.D. fathers of the Christian church, observing the fervor with which their new converts continued to celebrate the pagan festivals of light and regeneration at the year's end, simply usurped those celebrations, folding them without apology into the Christian calendar.
A Syrian Christian, wrote unabashedly, “The reason why the fathers transformed the celebration to the twenty-fifth of December was this. It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the sun at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities the Christians also took part. Accordingly, when the doctors of the church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that Day.”
If you can't destroy the competition, just re-brand it.
Within historical times the Chumash Indians of southern California called the sun “the radiance of the child born on the winter solstice.” And their symbol for it was the shell of the sand dollar, “the shadow of the child of the winter solstice.” For the Chumash, the sun was a powerful and dangerous being. Their solstice ceremony was an elaborate ritual for which they prepared all year long.
They would begin the ceremonies with a clearing of all debt, cleansing themselves of obligation for the new year. A wooden shaft with a stone disc mounted at an angle, called the sunstick and representing the sun and the tilted axis of the earth, served as the center of a ritual of dancing, chanting, drumming and prayer to entice the sun back onto its path.
In the evening the people would dance clockwise—sunwise—around taller sunpoles decorated with beads and feathers. At midnight the direction of the dance reversed and, echoing the spirit of carnivals like the Saturnalia, convention was turned on its ear for several hours.
The strict taboos against promiscuity and adultery were relaxed. During the dance a man could choose a woman, sing a song to her, and at the conclusion of the song retreat with her to the bushes at the edge of the firelight for a little private celebration of their own.
We are surrounded by the bric-a-brac of solstice celebrations past, from solar observatories like the stone medicine wheels in Montana to the sun temples of Egypt. The Christmas wreath itself is an ancient sun-symbol, built out of evergreen boughs to draw our attention to the inevitable re-greening of plant life in the spring.
In his autobiographical movie Amarcord, Frederico Fellini recreated the archetypal scene of a solstice bonfire in the central square of an Italian town sometime in the 1920s. Flames and sparks shoot up into the night sky as the townspeople feed the fire with old clothes, broken furniture and other detritus of the old year. They throw an effigy, finally, into the flames, echoing the ancient rites when the old, enfeebled king, figuratively or actually, was sacrificed to make way for the vigorous new king.
As the bonfire burns down, a motorcyclist appears without warning from a side street, a mysterious figure hidden behind goggles.
He circles the bonfire and the square on his machine and then leaves by another street, a messenger from the dark, ominous but at the same time human, alone and maybe lonely, seeking, like the rest of us, something regular and warm. Humankind's perennial vision of itself—light encircled by darkness and mystery.
I am not a very religious person. I may have meditated successfully a few times, and I once participated in a shamanic ritual where I went on a vision quest to the accompaniment of drums and the pharmacological enhancements attained by ingesting certain mushrooms. I don't know much about life energy vibrations, and if there is the Light within me my frugal self must be keeping it turned pretty low to cut back on the utility bills.
But the solstice makes sense to me in what may be almost a religious way. I can see it happening on the horizon and feel the effects of the shortening and then lengthening of the days on my moods and my sense of who and what I am. It is, as my departed friend Mary Lamenzo used to say, the beginning of spring. And that's as much of a miracle as I need, in this life, anyway.