(HOST) Commentator Edith Hunter has been thinking about why we mark the turn of the year and celebrate when days are at their darkest.
(HUNTER) “It is no small matter, this round and delicious globe moving so exactly in its orbit for ever and ever, without one jolt
or the untruth of a single second.” — Walt Whitman
The length of the year is not something that we have arbitrarily made up. It is grounded in nature. It takes approximately 365
days for our planet earth, this “delicious globe”, to circle around our sun. And, because the earth is tilted on its axis, during this annual rotation we experience the four seasons of the year.
It is logical to set the beginning of a new year close to the day
that the hours of daylight no longer decrease. This is the day of the winter solstice – the standing still of the sun – which occurs annually about December 22.
Our earliest ancestors lived much closer to nature than we do. They saw the sun rise and set. They were aware of the regular procession of the constellations across the night skies.
Our ancestors, being human, worked out explanations for nature’s behavior. At first the explanations were in the form of stories and myths, but as humans mastered the techniques of observation, scientific explanations gradually replaced the stories and myths.
But, because we humans are not only scientists, but also poets and artists, most of us continue to enjoy the old myths and stories, and to use them in our poetry and art. We recognize
in them another kind of truth, one that feeds our emotions.
Our ancestors in all parts of the world, celebrated the winter solstice. It is thought that in the earliest times, as the days became shorter and shorter, people feared that the sun
was going away forever. Perhaps they could woo it back
with gifts, and with song and dance. And so, in many cultures, great celebrations took place at the time of the winter solstice. And light did come back into the world.
When Christianity became a dominant religion, church leaders saw fit to make use of these festivities. The birth date of Jesus, which no one knew exactly, was made to coincide with the winter solstice.
And Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, celebrated by Jews, marks the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the victory of the Maccabees. It also coincides with the winter solstice.
So let us enjoy these celebrations. They acknowledge the deep reality that, as our earth turns and the New Year begins, light and hope return to the earth.
This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.
Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.