Driven by the Solstice
This year in New York City, the earliest sunset arrived on December 3rd, at 4:28 PM, remaining at that time through December 12th.
At the perigee (lowest orbit point) of the sun’s journey through our skies, the slope of decline flattened out during November, leaving the time of sunset relatively constant for most of December, although beginning to set slightly later beginning on December 13 @ 4:29 PM.
Oddly (as it does every year), sunrise continued to come later. December 4th it was 7:03 AM, but continued getting later, reaching maximum lateness on January 1 @ 7:20 AM. It remains there until January 8th, when it finally begins to rise earlier.
In this midst of this asymmetric wobbling, the shortest day was indeed December 21 – it was in all the papers, as usual. I had always thought that “the shortest day” meant “earliest sunset and latest sunrise” – but no, things are a bit more complicated than that. On top of everything else, the earth’s axis of rotation itself is rotating. An interesting result of this will be that in 26,000 years, the seasons will be completely reversed !
The yearly changes in the rate of decline of daylight are fascinating. Early in December, we’re still losing around a minute a day – but the day of the solstice, we lost only 2 seconds, and got back one second on the following day. By the end of the month, the rate of daylight recovery will have increased to a half a minute more daylight per day.
By March 20, we’ll reach the maximum daylight gain rate at 2:43/day on the first day of Spring.
By any measure, this time of year is the most lacking in daylight in NY. It’s getting cold in the temperate latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, marking the onset of winter – and The Holidays.
Whether we’re Pagan or not, this is ultimately about the Sun. Every culture on the Earth has some kind of celebration, holiday or observance at this time of year.
Underlying it all, it’s a time of accounting, self-assessment and self-judgment. Winter can be a killer if you’re not prepared – or even if you are. How did you do this year? Have enough resources to survive the winter? Do you have resources to gift and share with others who may not be so fortunate? Do you have friends and family or a social network of some kind that can see you through the cold and long nights? It can be painful and life-threatening if you don’t, and blissfully celebratory if you do.
“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is also the “Most Painful Time of the Year,” when “want is most keenly felt” (Charles Dickens) for many. (1)
Christmas – Judgment Day
I grew up in a big family that made a huge production out of Christmas every year, with a long list of traditions shared by many thousands of families. It’s a mass cultural phenomenon, much of which was straight from the pages of McCall’s Magazine, the Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and “The Night Before Christmas.” Decorations, cookies, cards, tree, presents, celebratory meals, “seasonal” foods (mince pie?), the obligatory (and ever-less-frequent) trips to Church to observe “the True Meaning of Christmas,” amplifying the tacit understanding that Santa and the Secular Material Christmas is really disgusting on some level. Then, like ‘everybody else’ in America, the presents, meals, rituals, parties, family – a holiday with all of the love, fear, joy, pain, conflict, elation, confusion and peace that may come with it (“the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”). We found comfort in the tradition, solace in the presence of family and friends, distracted from thinking about the lack of Sun. We felt the joy of giving – or the pain of lack, and maybe guilt at pangs of greed, and surprise at the base nature we observe in ourselves and others.
The Driver of Compassion
“Sociobiology” tells us human behavior is driven by the need of our DNA to survive and replicate, and shows us there’s a sense of obligation to the common welfare built into our intrinsic, genetically-coded Creator-bestowed reward system. It feels good to give and do good, to be of service to others – it’s part of our wiring – and the start of winter is an ideal time to exercise these impulses for the maximum good for the greatest number. It makes sense that social drives of humans are part of this system, serving as the innate mechanism by which Society drives care for the less fortunate. Kindness is part of human nature because it feels good. Greed may yield a temporary satisfaction, a sense of “winning” – but leaves the heart and soul empty.
Christ taught compassion and kindness (as do all the prophets of all the religions of the world). His teachings excite the impulse to compassion, especially appropriate to this time of year. It’s no accident that Christmas is the most emphasized, highest holiday in the Christian calendar, with traditions originating from societies in the Northern Hemisphere’s temperate climes.
Suspension of Disbelief
Religion demands suspension of disbelief. I’ve always struggled with the origin stories of Creation, The Christ and other aspects of Christianity (2), but still find it comforting to immerse myself in the tradition, enjoying the music, decoration and ritual, grateful for the efforts of clergy to provide secular interpretation of Biblical verse, delivering a holiday message of compassion and kindness. There’s good advice there. Despite the incredible nonsense and apparent lies in the creation stories, in Scripture, and all the credulous observance around me, the mumbled incantations of impossible facts and out-of-tune singing, congregants’ farts and bad breath, I leave the service feeling better for having been there.
The “Church” (collectively) has been historically successful persuading its congregation to suspend disbelief. Although this mental habit can be useful for The Church to deliver whatever message suits its purpose, it creates a population willing to suspend belief at the suggestion of any perceived authority. We commit a similar crime against rationality on our own children by perpetuating the secular Santa myth, propelling the kids to dangerous levels of excitement, insomnia and greed. Belief, gullibility and credulousness can be conditioned because the human mind is malleable, and imagination becomes reality. Unfortunately, most human beliefs are usually wrong, held as the result of equally suspect processes, and should always be subject to reexamination.
Everybody Believes It!
In a Confirmation class I attended many years ago (in my late 30’s after getting sober) I had the nerve to challenge the contra-scientific Creation story, and the Virgin birth (“one of the three great lies”). The response by clergy – “WHO ARE YOU to challenge the beliefs held by millions of people for thousands of years?!” – strikes me as the Ecclesiastic version of “ A lot of people are saying… you know it, I know it, everybody knows it!” Bulldoze the skepticism and minimize the questioner. That’s what liars do.
A population conditioned to suspend disbelief is fertile soil for political demagoguery. The statistics of support by regular churchgoers for the current President bears out this phenomenon. Thirty-odd percent of the US routinely takes the historically-most-dishonest person ever to serve as president at his word. The Church makes the world safe for liars.
I wasn’t persuaded in Confirmation class, and I’m not persuaded now. The Bible is analogy? OK, whatever. I still like the music, and going to church on Christmas Eve is something I’ve been doing forever, off and on, despite my Buddhist core inclinations. Religiosity has been a powerful impetus for creative work as long as there’s been worship. It can be really comforting, beautiful and inspiring.
Charity is the Key
So, what is the True Meaning of Christmas?” Not “Jesus’ birthday,” not a virgin birth of a baby Messiah born in a manger – at least, not to my deepest understanding. I don’t believe it – although I try to follow the teachings of Christ as best I can. To me, that’s not the True Meaning of Christmas.
The True Meaning of Christmas
“Winter is here. It’s dangerous. Let’s get together, help others get through it and be kind. Remember those less fortunate than yourself while we await the return of the Sun and Spring.”
A fantastic example of the living Word of Christ is embodied in The Sharing Community, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in downtown Yonkers, NY. I’ve been doing some work with them, building their website and social promotion fundraising campaigns.
Their annual Christmas Dinner for the homeless (and anybody else who shows up) asks nothing of its guests but the opportunity to feed them, give out bags of sustaining groceries, and Christmas gifts, bringing nourishment, comfort, warmth and light into the lives of those suffering in these shortest of days.
There is no more worthy cause than helping them help others on Christmas.
Here’s a video I made for them – please keep them in your thoughts.
And Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, and whatever else you’re celebrating!
(1)Although suicide dips during the holidays, it accelerates rapidly afterward.
(2)The story of the Messiah, details of the “virgin birth” and other aspects of the Christ origin story in the New Testament appear in texts far more ancient than the New Testament (NY Times article). The story had been around in religious traditions going back to the Sumerians. “Mithraism” was most immediate antecedent, documented in an academic paper by Dr Martin Luther King (in the Stanford library).