By Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D.
In 2017, winter in the Northern Hemisphere begins on Thursday, December 21, at 16:28 UTC. It is the shortest day of the year; it is the day of the longest night.
For thousands of years, humans sought understanding of the cosmic wonder of day and night — the endless cycle of sun and moon. What if the cycle ceased?
What is the mystery of the rising and setting of the sun and the moon? What if the sun fails to rise? What if the moon and darkness remain? Is this possible? Fated? Predictable? Perhaps!
What did ancients think of daily cosmic wonders apparent to the eye, but bewildering to the mind? The sun rises and descends; the moon rises and descends. An endless cycle! Ancients wondered is this a cosmic battle of unknown forces, a struggle between day and night, light and darkness, goodness and evil?
Ancients summoned their oldest and wisest for explanation, understanding, comfort. Tell us, sages:
“What is it? What does this cycle mean? What should we do? What must we know of these things?
Should we sacrifice? Should we light fires, demonstrating we can create light? Should we seek refuge in dark caves, and there draw creatures on stone walls? Should we build stone monuments, predicting the courses of the sun and the moon? Will homage ensure survival?
Should we sing and dance? Should we wear frightening costumes, should we shout and curse and threaten the forces bringing darkness? What should we do? The sun burns our eyes, the moon commands stares — are both good and bad?
Pacify the Unknown
Amid uncertainty, amid fear, we cried:
We must raise stone monuments to touch the heavens; we must gather stones of such weight and proportion they will stand forever, gifts for all who follow! We must position stones in circles for circles too are mystery. We ask, how can a line connect from beginning to end? This perfection, this safety for all within the circle’s limits.
We must raise monuments of stone to honor the sun and the moon. Only stone is permanent, only stone defies the ravages of time, only stone is eternal.
On this Day of the Longest Night
In reverence, ancients awaited the shining sun. Permanent night? Could this be?
“We must chant, we must pray, we sacrifice, we must . . . !”
Our wisest marked days and nights:The sun must rest; a long darkness will descend upon us.
“Fear not!” A rested sun will win the battle!
We are told, each day will be longer, bringing comfort and protection. We are told, this day of the longest night will pass. It must! We must believe! We must . . .
Can we be certain? Can we trust our wisest? We have done all we can do. Now powers decide our fate. Be not afraid!
If darkness is permanent, we will learn to sleep by fire, to plant by moon, to hunt amid shadows, aware now, more than before, of sounds, smells, touches. We must not fear!
And for People Today
And so today, our calendar is clearly marked. We need nothing more. We note the day and date: December 21, “the day of the longest night.”
So be it! We are taught about the sun’s angles on Earth’s rotation. We will turn electric lights on earlier and turn them off later, without hesitation or doubt. There are no more concerns. There is shopping to do, cookies to be made, TV programs to be watched! Saturday night lights from stadiums, Tokyo, more beautiful in night than in day.
Will we remember the event of this day as it was experienced ten thousand years ago? Sages — men, women, children — priests and priestesses — painted faces and limbs in animal skins and robes, torches, potions, drinking, dancing, chanting, begging, praying — supplicants, appeasing unknown forces, comforting uncertainty.
We continue to gather at sanctified places across the world: men, women, children, casting aside clothes in favor of animal skins and painted faces and limbs. We moan and sigh as light dims, and dark descends.
And then, as has been true across time, we shout and cheer, the experience of joy and hope captured in song by the Beatles: “Here Comes the Sun . . . And it’s all right.” Yes, yes, so let it be written, so let it be sung — forever!