Winter Solstice

January 16, 2024

North Salem’s agricultural heritage is quite apparent this time of year. Fall turning to winter, we see inspiring expanses of open fields. Dense canopies have faded away, and bare trees congregate on hills and flat land often bounded by soaring evergreens. From daylight perches around our small town, sunny days send a low-slung arc of brilliant light across the landscape as we approach the winter solstice. On bright days, birds look illuminated, feathered in super- saturated color; the reservoir, lakes and ponds can be blinding; and the glint on any remaining foliage sparkles.

The naked land and shortened daylight can be despairing though. In our primal brains we experienced the end of a growing season— at first a celebratory harvest but then possibly worrisome. This anxious sensibility stems from a time we all lived off the land—when our ancestors were not certain that our larders would get us through the cold months, or even that the sun would reliably climb the sky again. The phenomenon of a planet orbiting back toward a star, to return light and warmth to the earthbound, would have been a hard thing to grasp, yet ancient people built monuments to observe the precision of the winter solstice.

Once, we may have taken cues from backyard creatures that hole up and rest to conserve energy, synchronized to the earth’s movement. These days we are the busier creature, distractions may keep us sane, unless we catch on to the earth’s essential rhythms and slow down, too. This Thursday, the sun will be so low in the horizon that it will seem to rise and set in the same place. That’s why the word solstice in Latin means: “sun stands still.” Straddling past and future this day, we may watch shadows eerily elongate, specters of time gone by, while rejoicing for the brightening days to come. We may have the presence to see the rawness of the season, perhaps to see our blessings take on their own light, knowing each new day brings some hope, some gratitude, or an inkling of God beyond our control.