Today is the Winter Solstice — the real reason for the season — so I am republishing the annual post. I have (falsely) set the time of the post to 5:02 AM, the time of the solstice this year.
In truth, the solstices hardly matter any more, and I imagine that most folk barely notice; perhaps there is an offhand mention of it during the television weather report. After all, we no longer are eager for the game to return so that we have assurance of food. Why worry — we have chicken-to-go! But the winter solstice was a genuine-article Big Deal for millennia; it signified that fields would soon freshen, game would return to the forests, the air would soon be warming. All over the world, ancient peoples built observatories spread across acres; the projects must have required years, and the cost of labor and missed opportunities must have been huge.
And, of course, this day of least sunshine figured heavily in the religious narratives relied upon to understand the world, and all religions made much of the winter solstice. Basically, Christianity simply appropriated this promising, forward-looking day and attached to it a made-up a story about a savior’s birth. We all know how that worked-out.
No Winter Solstice ever passes but that I find myself imagining what must have been the experience of that first person who recognized that there is regularity in the cosmos.
What triggered the insight? What set of circumstances caused the caveman Poogah to realize that the stars were aligned just like now when the days were last cold just like now and the game had moved south just like now? How staggering it must have been to realize that he lived in the middle of a giant clock.
How long did he wait to speak of it? Did he watch carefully for two or three years before telling the rest of his tribe what he had recognized, in order to be certain, or did he share that insight at once? And what words did he use, when the words had never before been needed to explain a thought that nobody had ever had?
Did the local Holy Man, with responsibility for teasing blessings from a random and hostile universe, condemn him for impiety?
Whatever happened, it must be counted one of the great moments of human history, for afterward the world became predictable and perhaps manageable. There are ancient observatories all over the earth, and always it can be seen that the stones were arranged to point toward the rising sun on this day of least daylight, signifying that on the morrow the day would be longer and soon the game would return and the fields would freshen. We know our ancient forebears attached great importance to the day, because the work of building the observatories was huge and construction of the observatories would have required years.
Thus were science and engineering born.
Nowadays, of course, it hardly matters. The passing of the seasons has nothing to do with whether or not there will be food to eat, and the greatest part of mankind will probably not pause to remark the solstice at all or even, if only vaguely, wonder why there are so many religious observances at just about the same time the seasons change. Indeed, some people are so ignorant that they are offended by the idea that their Holy Day has pagan origins.
Meantime, the great clock ticks on.