Monday, December 20, 2010

the shortest day

tomorrow is winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. basically, it's the unofficial beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere. because of the earth's tilt on its axis away from the sun, we're basically getting less sunlight than our brethren in australia, for example. winter will happen for them in june.

here's the thing. a full moon and a full and total lunar eclipse are expected -- very unusual news. a full moon has happened before on winter solstice, in 1999 and 1980, respectively. the last lunar eclipse during the first day of winter, on the other hand, was in 1378 -- 632 years ago. there won't be another one on the night of winter solstice for 84 years.

and as if all of that weren't enough, there's also an ursids meteor shower in the offing. normally, it would be difficult to see but the eclipse should allow most viewers who are able to enjoy quite a show. and mercury is in retrograde!

i hate to sound like a complete hippie but i'm going to ask a rhetorical question, anyway. winter solstice, a full moon, a total eclipse: what does the occurrence of this rare trifecta mean?

when i think of winter solstice, i imagine filthy malnourished peasants looking somewhat glazed over and comatose, living in a darkened, iced over, snow covered europe and scandanavia, sitting around a blazing fire with a huge black cauldron resting upon it, boiling meat or offal of some sort, as some weary looking woman sits in a corner, shivering involuntarily and perhaps breast feeding a screaming infant. while that's not necessarily the whole truth, it's not far from it. winter solstice was dreaded by many because the nights were so long and dark and there wasn't much food. the smart move was to do as little activity as possible, sleep in and stay warm. it would probably have meant more births in the spring and summer months -- and that would mean the babies would be more likely to survive.

depression, i imagine, was everywhere. today we call it seasonal affective disorder or sad, a very real affliction that affects millions. back then, sven's only real option would have been to eat more mutton and get over it. nowadays, he should simply turn all the lights on.

because of the waning sunlight and its inevitable return, the concept of birth and death/rebirth became associated with the winter solstice, so there's a lot of feasting and celebrating in pagan cultures and many religions -- and needless to say, it's also a time of deep inner reflection and hibernation.

when i see an image of the full moon, i hear a coyote howling in the distance -- and of course, that means a werewolf is nearby. or a lunatic. there are lots of lunar myths out there, steeped in european folklore and traditions, and astrology augments some of this. because the media plays on these notions so freely, its a part of our pop lexicon -- so when crazy stuff happens on a full moon, everybody seems to know why. while it's interesting to note that none of that stuff has ever been scientifically proven, folks have been using the gravitational pull of the moon and working within its phases to do everything from grow plants and cut hair to sell stocks.

my great-grandmother, who worked the soil on a daily basis and read her farmer's almanac religiously, taught me about the moon. i understood the difference between waxing and waning, the importance of a full moon and what to do in each case at a very early age. one of my earliest memories of her is when we would clip plants, put the cuttings in water, sit them in on the kitchen windowsill and watch them grow roots literally overnight. the moon pulled them out, she explained. i knew the moon was pulling everything else, too.

she was the one who taught me that the moon was strongest when it was full. if it's true that the moon represents female energy, it's interesting that there will be a total lunar eclipse -- with a partial solar eclipse expected on january 4. (apparently, these things come in pairs.) anyone on the right side of the earth can see it. the lunar eclipse turns the full moon into a new moon, for a little while.

everyone knows what an eclipse is and watching it happen is nothing short of breathtaking but what's revealing is what it symbolizes.

i suppose there's a grand argument that can be made as to whether the planets spinning around us have any real effect on our lives. i don't know if there's any magic in the air or not. but i'm certainly standing on the verge of something. events like this one give me reason to pause and wonder what it is.

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