Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The Darkest Day of the Year

Screenshot 12:21:12 10:51 AM

Because we do things like reason and use language and make digital watches, we like to think of ourselves as very complex and enlightened creatures. It’s vanity. And I believe it’s totally unjustified. We’re really very, very simple creatures (with pretty specific limitations) who like to trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not. We often overlook the obvious things and pass up the simple truth in favor of a more complex falsehood. Like the Mayan Apocalypse

Today is the winter solstice. That means, in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the day we get the fewest hours of sunlight. It’s the darkest day of the year.

It’s an observation that fits the times, in more ways than one.

Every day since September 22nd, the days have been getting shorter – literally darkness is winning.

Darkness is Winning

A quick Google search will reveal all kinds of precise, geometric explanation of how the motions of the Earth give rise to the seasons, but I think that’s the easy stuff to understand. Or easier to understand than what’s going on inside us.

Every culture in the Northern Hemisphere has a celebration around this time of year. Yule comes from Pagan Scandinavians. The early church founded Christmas on an older festival of the God Mithras and celebration of the Saturnalia.

Temple geometry of every kind, from the pyramids, to Stonehenge to Chichen Izta to St. Peter’s to the Washington Memorial, shows us the passage of the seasons. It allows us to tell one day from the next, and mark the passage of time with precision. Stonehenge is a very, very, very heavy device for determining, among other things, the solstice.


Agriculture depends on knowing the best time to plant. So knowing when winter is really over is an important survival skill. The first step in that is knowing when the days start getting longer. And key to having hope is verifying that they actually are getting longer.

If you’re very primitive, and you don’t have any kind of writing or a calendar or a ‘Henge, then the only way left of recording and transmitting the knowledge is through the elders of the tribe. Basically, the Madmen and the Mystics.

Because… SCIENCE!

Today we know that the world is not ending because of science. We’ve got writing and telescopes and calendars and spreadsheets and digital watches – we even have the Internet (and on computers no less!) We’re very impressed with ourselves and not easily fooled.

This is clearly not a time of year where we would ever:

*Rush to be with loved ones, huddle around fires and display the few plants that remain green in winter as a reminder of growth and hope and things eternal.
* Make phone calls and send out messages to distant friends and relatives letting everybody know that we’re okay -– and seeking that same message in return.
* Lay out a feast, and throw parties and convince ourselves and others how good we’ve got it, and how everything is going to be okay.
* Turn to religion. (Christmas Eve is the highest church attendance of the year. )

How scared and frantic we all act around the solstice. How frightened. Today is the darkest day of the year. And, for all our intelligence and achievements and self-congratulations, on some animal level, we still freak out about it, even though we know better.

But there’s another thing I’ve noticed about this time of year. Christmas doesn’t fall on the solstice. Neither does New Year’s. If we’re being rational about it, isn’t the Solstice is the logical time to declare a new year? The whole cycle is starting up again.

But if you don’t happen to have a Henge…

If you were watching the sun and you didn’t have a Henge, or one of it’s more portable, technologically advanced versions, how long would it take you to confirm that the days were getting longer? That things were getting brighter? That the darkest day of the year was behind you? 4 days? 12 days? Something like that.

Today is the darkest day of the year. But it’s not the end. Tomorrow will be brighter, and the day after that, and the day after that – all the way until June.

It’s an inarguable physical fact. But, as I said, I’m not all that interested in facts. I’m interested in a higher order of ideas. What we do with the facts. How we use the facts to tell ourselves stories that create meaning.

So you know what I make of this time of the year? I think this is how nature teaches us hope. Sometimes the days are dark and then they get darker. But that’s okay. It goes the other way, too.
Just as sure as the turning of the earth.

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