So, have you been out planet-watching? Where weather and light-pollution permits, look in the southwest sky just after full dark. You should be able to see two faint spots that don’t twinkle. Tonight, you will see one faint spot, as Jupiter and Saturn are in true conjunction, overlapping as the evening star.
Today is the shortest day, in the northern hemisphere, and the longest in the south. The day people feared and hoped for, the day that signaled if spring would return as the days grew longer, or if the great winter, Fimbulwinter, or some other horrible season had begun. It was a time of bonfires and prayer and sacrifice to keep the Dark away. “Tonight shall be wild, and tomorrow beyond imagining,” the farmer tells Will in The Dark is Rising. And so it was for Will, and for me, the first time I read that book.
Susan Cooper, author of the Dark is Rising series, also wrote a poem for the Christmas Revels entitled ” The Shortest Day”.
Darkness and cold were deadly for our ancestors in the northern lands. With all the talk today being about global warming, people forget that the cold killed more people than any heat wave. Night, for all that I love roaming in it, remains dangerous. Predators hunt at night. We can’t see as well in the dark, and holes, gullies, nasty plants, and the like are more of a problem. Help is farther away, and harder to reach.
Even in the days and places when more of the population had better night vision, most people tended not to be out and about as much at night as during the day. In the medieval period, nighttime had a far more positive connotation and people didn’t dread it as much as they would later. But you still couldn’t see as well to do work, unless the moon and stars were bright. The farther north you were, the longer winter nights could be, and certainly the colder. Add in auroras, which might be good or evil, and night belonged to the uncanny. Around the Alps, and in parts of Britain, the Wild Hunt rode the night.
Stars could be heralds and messengers. Was the Star of Bethlehem a conjunction? A nova of some kind? A miracle as G-d bent the rules to get a point across, as He did for Joshua when “the sun stood still in the sky?” People spend a lot of time and computer power, and number crunching, trying to decide, to prove and disprove, and still have not come up with a solid answer.
Tonight’s conjunction is solid. It’s up there, visible with naked eye, better with binoculars or a small telescope. Winter starts with a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. It seems fitting.
[Susan Cooper published the poem as a children’s book last year. It is a beautiful book, suitable for ages five and up. Highly recommend for Christmas/Solstice/winter reading.]