Winter Solstice, Lunar Eclipse, and Other Reasons to Love December

by Judy Stone-Goldman on December 20, 2010

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A full moon on a dark winter night

Tonight is the winter solstice, an event having to do with the earth’s tilt on its axis (the earth’s axis is tilted farthest away from the earth). It’s cultural meanings are many. To be honest, I don’t know much about different cultures’ view of the solstice, and I get quickly confused when I try to figure out the astronomy. So why does the word solstice evoke such a strong mood?

The winter solstice is, for me, deeply associated with the heart of December, with the dark time of the year. The days have been shortening for some time now. We wake in the darkness, we return home from work in the darkness. It is a cold time of year. We comfort ourselves with reminders that months will pass and the longer days of sunlight will return.

Despite the darkness, December has its own mood, a mood shaped for each of us by our family and cultural traditions. I have enduring images not only of Hanukkah lights but of the Christmas lights decorating houses on our street, the strings of color indelibly connected to winter darkness. And for me, there were birthday candles, too: my birthday is December 22, always in close proximity to the solstice.

Put these images together–darkness, Hanukkah candles, Christmas lights, and birthday–and you have a mood that imprints powerfully on a young child. It became part of me and is now evoked by any number of sounds, sights, or words. Words like winter solstice.

As a child I often heard that the day of my birthday was close to the shortest of the year. I didn’t understand what that meant, other than it sounded completely unfair! Why should my special day have to be short? I’m not sure when I grasped the meaning of “short” and “long” in relation to daylight versus darkness, but I never lost the idea that my birthday was a short, dark day of winter.

Tonight’s solstice may be even darker: There will also be a lunar eclipse in North America, when the moon will move into the shadow of the earth, and the normal illumination from the sun will beĀ  temporarily lost. (Because of cloud cover, we might be better off watching through NASA cameras.) The eclipse and winter solstice coincide only rarely, lending more drama to the event.

So I approach tonight with the confluence of memory and immediacy. I will think of the winter solstice and how it is time to begin the journey to longer days, to light, to warmth, and to the renewal promised with the turning of the seasons. I will look at the moon and hope for an image that adds mystery and magic to this dark time of year. Woven into it all will be the sensation of my birthday coming near, a natural time of looking ahead, to wondering what new part of me will come with the new light of day.

Question for Reflection: What are the images and associations you have for the winter solstice and this time of year?

Writing Prompts: “The darkness of winter leaves me feeling ______” (then keep writing); “I connect the winter solstice to ______” (then keep writing); “At this time of year I start to remember ______” (then keep writing); “Looking at the moon makes me think of ______” (then keep writing).

Postscript: As an added bonus,

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