By MARK VANHOENACKER
For the roughly 90 percent of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice of 2017 is coming soon (at 11:28 a.m. E.S.T. on Thursday, to be precise). And if it wasn’t so dark out, you’d see how happy I am that the year’s longest night is sweeping down over the northern half of our planet, as naturally as the lid of a closing eye.
To this dark but cozy and star-spangled corner of the calendar, I welcome like-minded pilots and air travelers; astronomers, of course; and any fans of “The Simpsons” who secretly cheered when Mr. Burns (“I call this enemy … the sun!”) tried to block out the light from everyone’s favorite ball of plasma. But whatever your feelings about the longest night, the winter solstice — transcendent, yet precise; celestial, but very local — is worth pausing to savor.
When this cycle was first explained to me as a child, my teacher advised me to imagine the “leaning” Earth as it arcs through its annual orbit around the sun. (Even as an adult, I like to close my eyes and relish the wondrous fact that you and I are sitting on a tilted blue-and-white planet that’s sailing around a star.) But such illustrations, however useful, make it easy to overlook the loveliest aspect of this Thursday: that a solstice is in fact a moment of rest.
What stops at the December solstice is the sun’s apparent southward and night-lengthening (or night-shortening, in the Southern Hemisphere) march across the sky. The true meaning of “solstice” — indeed, the word’s Latin roots refer to the stilling of the sun — was made clear to me by George Greenstein, emeritus professor of astronomy at Amherst. From his home in Pelham, Mass., Professor Greenstein has a good view of the western horizon. He asked me to imagine a continuous movie composed of photographs that capture the position of the setting sun (the rising sun would work equally well) throughout the year.
The poet Annie Finch is the author of “Winter Solstice Chant” (“the edge of winter sky/leaning over us in icy stars.”). During a phone call from her home in Portland, Me., she pointed out how neatly the solstice accounts for late December’s rich spiritual bottleneck of festivities and traditions in so much of the ancient and modern world. However we may celebrate the return of light to our skies and lives, she continued, we might also wish to pause to honor the darkness that will give way to it: “If you don’t experience the darkness fully then you are not going to appreciate the light.” A pause, of course, is just what we’ll be given on Thursday.
When I heard this, I thought of how Thursday’s solstice is closing out a hard year — Ms. Finch would rightly rebuke me if I called it a dark year — for many. I was reminded, too, of my mother, who died just before the winter solstice of 2006. Unlike me, my mother found no comfort in darkness (she didn’t like flying much either). But she loved the winter solstice because she knew it marked the light’s rebirth. It was a win-win for us, you might say, and I’m glad it’s coming around again to a world that needs every shared wonder.