Solstice Day and Night

The shortest day of the year, in the Northern Hemisphere, has come. It will not be the coldest. There’s truth in the saying “The days begin to lengthen and the cold begins to strengthen.” But it is the day with the least sunlight. And most of that sunlight comes at a pronounced angle, weakening the effects. We’re in the week when I can go out without sunscreen for almost 45 minutes at mid-day before starting to burn.

It was also a day to be feared, especially in the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Sunrise comes late, sunset arrives early. There’s little time to work if you lack artificial light. And more time for trouble, for things that stalk the night, to do their work. Would the sun return? Or would this be the Fimbulwinter, or some other beginning of the end?

I understood that fear academically until 2007. Then, having lost power in an ice storm, I understood it in my gut. When the sun finally rose three days after the storm, I wasn’t the only person to stop and just stare at the blessed, wonderful glowing ball of heat and light. It didn’t matter that the temperature would not rise above freezing that day. Just having light and the promise of melting . . .

It is easy to understand why the solstice and the times around it are connected with the supernatural in Northern European folklore and myth. The dark is never good. Light is. This is the time of darkness, of weakened walls between our world and that of strange and powerful creatures and beings. Of course the uncanny moved in the long darkness! There’s a good reason that the Christian Church decided to set the feast of the birth of the Light close to the darkest, longest night of the year. Sacrifices were no longer needed every year in order to ensure the return of the sun, because of the birth of the holy child.

Christianity’s arrival in the North didn’t entirely quell fears about That Which Stalks the Night. Wolves, men outside the law, killing cold, all sorts of things still nosed around outside the churchyard. A wise man went to church, prayed, and planned for trouble of the uncanny sort.

One of the interesting points that Susan Cooper raised in her wonderful novel The Dark is Rising has to do with belief and darkness. One of the signs of the Light is hidden in a stone in the wall of a church. The protagonist thinks that being inside the church means the Dark can’t get in. Wrong. His mentor points out that people spend much of their time inside the church contemplating darkness and light, evil and good. That means that the Dark can still enter, although perhaps not as strongly as into other places. This came as a bit of a surprise to me when I first read the book lo these many years ago, because I’d always taken the approach that nothing bad could enter sacred ground, so of course churches were safe.

Susan Cooper, I fear, had the right of it, although now I’d say that there are some places that are refuges, places of respite from the Dark. You cannot stay there forever, not the places I’ve visited, but you can rest, regroup, breathe a little, and gird up your loins to resume your personal battles. Those of us who are aware of the problems in the various Christian churches around the world are all to familiar with the struggles of any institution made up of people. I think that Pastor Dan, the Romanian Orthodox priest in Amarillo two decades ago and a little more, was right. He said that the Church survives despite believers, and sometimes to spite believers. The same is likely true with any institution devoted to the Light that has people in it.

Darkness and Light, good and evil, we constantly have to choose. This time of year, when the sun is so far away and days are so short, evil sometimes seems closer than usual. But as the bells put it, “G-d is not dead, nor does He sleep.” Whether you believe in one deity, many, or none at all, there is always hope. The darkest days come, and the light comes, and people rise to fight the darkness, the evil.

One spark, one candle, one bonfire in the darkness, one kind word, one person saying, “No, that is wrong and cannot be permitted to stand,” . . .

And the Darkness overcomes it not.

26 thoughts on “Solstice Day and Night

  1. Actually… It seems increasingly clear that, if the date of Christmas was not based on simple fact (which it may have been), that it was based on the early Christian idea that Jesus,.like other Jewish prophets, had died on the same day of the solar year that he was conceived and that the world was created, ie, on March 25. The other way to calculate things was from the traditional month of Zechariah’s priestly service of Abia, but I don’t know as much about that one.

    (There was a minority early Christian opinion that Jesus was born in March 25, but various details of Middle Eastern sheep breeds and sheepherding, and of the known rules for the Temple flocks raised in Bethlehem, make this unlikely.)

    Anyway, it is pretty interesting sometimes to look at this stuff, and there are translations online of some of Hippolytus’ stuff, and of other early Christians, on the subject.

    • Jimmy Akin mentioned something about the Zachariah based theory. After a huuuuuuge pile of paragraphs pointing out exactly how many ways you can add weeks of uncertainty to the estimate, he says:

      In view of these uncertainties, this argument won’t allow us to determine the exact day of Jesus’ birth.
      However, it may get us part of the way there. Based on a guess of which of the two priestly services Zechariah was performing, Jack Finegan calculates that the argument would point to a birthday somewhere between December and February, lending plausibility—based on biblical evidence—to Jesus being born in the winter (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 2nd ed., §473), though it should be pointed out that making the opposite guess about Zechariah’s service would point to a birth in the summer.

      • Isaac Asimov once wrote an essay whose theme was that not only don’t we know the day of Jesus’ birth, we don’t even know the year. The existing sources are inconsistent; if we go by Roman records then Jesus was born in the year 754 A.U.C. at the latest, but Dionysus’ calculations, which are the foundation of the BC/AD year-counting system, equates 754 A.U.C. to 4 BC.

    • *Wry grin* Back when I was in youth group, we got the “It is in December only because the Catholics [always Catholics] co-opted Saturnalia and it should be in spring.” Yeah, you can guess what we also got about the Roman Catholic Church and the Revelation of St. John. . . No, the youth leader (and some later ministers) didn’t have a good answer to “So why don’t we change it?”

      • I remember hearing that the date of Christ’s birth was intended to be nine-months (and some years) before the date of His Death (and Resurrection).

        I also suspect that the “rebirth of the Sun” wasn’t as important to Southern Europe and the Middle East as it was for Far Northern Europe.

        Although, the Date is appropriate considering the Beliefs of Far Northern Europe. 😀

        As for the “Whore Of Babylon”, I think there is a “better” group (today) to be “Her” than the Roman Catholic Church in spite of the current Pope. 😉

  2. One spark, one candle, one bonfire in the darkness, one kind word, one person saying, “No, that is wrong and cannot be permitted to stand,” . . .

    The little light might not banish all the dark– but it definitely gives you a chance to find the matches.

  3. With my interest in astronomy, it irked (irks) me that night/dark is “evil” and day/light is good ( since High School is during daylight… well, night is good and day is EVIL..) Yeah, I know the metaphor. I also know my experience. And poorly shielded thermonuclear reactors result in radiation burns. Give the me the “dark, sacred night.” And PUT OUT THAT LIGHT!

    • Shel Silverstein, “The Bat” “The baby bat/ Screamed out in fright,/ ‘Turn on the dark!/ I’m afraid of the light!’ ”

      As one who “has been acquainted with the night,” I’m inclined to agree about nights. However, there’s a difference between night and Darkness. The worst Darkness seems to happen in broad daylight.

  4. The new year began at the vernal equinox, by convention on the third day after. This became the Feast of the Annunciation, a muted celebration that’s often within Holy Week. Announcing the coming of the Messiah fits well with new life coming into the world. By convention, Nativity is celebrated nine months later. Repurposing times considered important or sacred was a bonus.

    The approximate dates are fixed by the historical record: Zechariah, Augustus and his enrollment, the governor of Judea, and Herod’s reign. The exact date is less important than the coming as was promised.

    The shoot of Jesse’s, the Key of David, born of the line of kings, came humbly to a family of decent means but of great faith and heritage. As for the lowly manger, two questions:

    1. Have you ever had that much company arrive, that you needed to move cars out of the garage for a couple days, then sweep and clean it?

    2. Would an innkeeper treat his expensive draft animals and travelers’ beasts better than servants or mere slaves, who could be crammed into odd corners?

    • My Pastor pointed out that the word translated as “Inn” was closer to large household and may have been a large home for members of the “House Of David” to stay in while traveling.

      Thus with every member of the House of David traveling to Bethlehem (City of David) of course it would be full.

      Then the word “stable” likely referred to the part of the large house where animals were kept and yes likely wasn’t a terrible place to stay especially if your wife was about to have her first child. 😉

      As a side note, I’ve never likely the sermons about the “terrible innkeeper” that crop up this time of year.

      We have no reason to believe that the “innkeeper” didn’t provide plenty of help (contacting the local midwife, etc) to Mary and Joseph.

  5. Somewhere on the web, somewhen years ago, I read an article proposing that the Star of Bethlehem was a triple event, three very bright, very rare astronomical events that appeared as one. The authors made the case based on evidence. I’ll poke around, see if I can find it.

  6. Off Topic.

    Alma, you had a blog post on the Familiars and I was trying to remember stuff that you made on Familiars in general and certain of your characters in particular.

    Do you remember the post I’m thinking about?

    If so, when was it and what was the “subject line”.

    Thank you.

  7. Every year, about this time, I tend to tell people about an episode of the short-lived Old Time Radio series, “Dark Fantasy.”
    Produced in Oklahoma City, written by Scott Bishop, they had some some wonderful titles!
    Go to
    The episode in question was written for a pre-war setting, but it nonetheless still worked. And packs a punch, even lo, these many decades later…
    “The House of Bread” (episode 6) —
    [audio src="" /]
    I first played it in June some years ago, and still was impressed…!

    There are a few other strong stories for the Christmas season.
    One of those was “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” as done on Suspense:
    [audio src="" /]

    I just noticed that Morton Fine and David Friedkin write that one; they had the most poetic touch on Radio, when they wanted to…

    As Justice Gorsuch said, “Merry Christmas!!”

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