Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Long nights

When Edmund Spenser got married one summer solstice, he joked (if you can call the Epithalamion a joke) that he had the bad luck to marry on the longest day and the shortest night. The winter solstice, on the other hand, is no laughing matter. We have it all nicely explained now, even down to the precise moment it happens (7:42 a.m. EST this year). For the ancients it wasn't so clear. For several days the sun seemed to stand still at its lowest point in the sky (Lat. "sol" sun + "sistere" to cause to stand still), and its return was not guaranteed.

Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran theologian, meditates on the somber solstice roots of the Christmas celebration.

The immense popularity of Christmas among us is probably due to the dominance in North America of people whose ethnic origins are in northern latitudes where the solstice is an impressive and still powerful event, as it is in much of North America as well. Most of what has been added to Christmas over the ages can be interpreted as solstice phenomena: feasting and greetings and greens and the light-tree and lights against the darkness and the yule-log and nostalgia for the recovery of old memories and, for us especially, gift-giving and consumer over-spending--all are attempts to secure the return of light and summertime wholeness, are mid-winter protest.

These solstice phenomena are powerful metaphors for us. The darkness does stand for our fears and the feast does awaken--perhaps more than we would have them awakened--our hopes. These metaphors ought not be easily maligned. The pastoral intention of the origin of the feast may be recalled. The human feast of Christmas needs a good deal of sympathetic interpretation and loving support.

Here in Chapel Hill the long nights before Christmas have been cold, a near record, down in the teens. On Sunday night the power went out, and, in the midst of our unknowing how long it would take to return, we worried about, among other things, how long a desert reptile could last without a heat lamp. All was recovered within couple of hours, leaving us with a bracing reminder of the luck we do have.

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