I can’t imagine living in early times without scientific knowledge regarding the year’s shortest day and longest night, the winter solstice. Before easy access to candles, kerosene, and electricity, this was a worrisome season. Little besides faith the sun would return comforted the ancients through increasingly long nights.
The word solstice itself comes from the Latin solstitium. Sol meant sun and stitium stoppage. According to the Family Education Network, the winter solstice occurs either December 21 or 22. For several days before the solstices and for several days after, it appears that time stands still. In a world bombarded with more information than it can process, it comforts me to imagine, that for a moment, the sun momentarily stands in place each June and December.
It must have comforted our ancestors also. Anthropologists have found evidence that many early societies developed means to mark equinoxes and solstices. Stonehenge is one well-known example. In North America, some experts theorize Native American medicine wheels peppering our landscape may have served a similar purpose. Though I don’t recommend building a Stonehenge or a medicine wheel in the backyard, much can be said for beginning one’s day before the sun rises and making time to watch its first rays break the horizon.
Kansans have experienced some spectacular sunrises since Thanksgiving. One morning it appeared that fingers of crimson fire tore away the darkness. Other mornings reveal themselves in pastel hues gently probing their way into the eastern sky. Making a point of spending time watching the sun come up and taking note of when it happens puts life in perspective. I find myself hating to sleep in. I don’t want to miss sunrise or the day’s continually shifting shadows.
In the same vein, I’ve found it soothing to note when the sun sets on our western hill. Painters and photographers recognize and celebrate the power a fiery sunset or a rosy orb gradually fading into violet darkness holds over a viewer. Marking evolving shadows dropping into the West connects us to forgotten rhythms.
For those who don’t want to or can’t watch the sun rise and set, computers make it easy to track the earth’s rhythms. Anyone can see sunrise and sunset times on the weather page or by installing the Weather Bug on a computer.
Solstices are a reminding, a remembering of rhythms our hearts know but our minds forgot. They are about belief in rebirth. They are about faith. They are about knowing darkness will descend and lengthen but, given time, light will return.
It is not a coincidence that we choose to celebrate our religious and secular holidays with displays of light during this dark time of year. The beckoning warmth of Christmas lights and electric candles on windowsills reminds humanity that light will overcome dark and days will grow longer. I hope you stopped for a moment and remained still, especially at sunrise and sunset, to mark this year’s winter solstice December 21.
Native Kansan Karen Madorin is a local writer and retired teacher who loves sharing stories about places, people, critters, plants, food, and history of the High Plains.