On Nov. 30, 2020, I hung a load of washing on my backyard clothesline for, most likely, the last time this year.
It was a rare sunny day after at least a week of November grey. I have been following the tradition of the ancient ancestors of my Northern heritage in watching the sun’s southern trend, leaving the north in winter’s grip. I am observing the earth’s tilt from the sun, though what the ancient people believed was that the sun was dying.
What I noticed that day was very special and I saw it because I was hanging out my laundry which I seldom do in November. I realized the shadow of my neighbor’s giant White Pine close to 50 yards away (of which I have written previously in these pages) was cast across my washing line. The sun, low in the southeast at 10 a.m., was just in the right spot to do this. I realize that most readers are thinking by now that I need to get a life and use my clothes dryer, but I like to save electricity and it was a glorious sunny morning and, more importantly, the sun and its light throughout the year is very important to me. Some people, though fortunately not I, suffer psychologically from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression related to changes in the cycle of natural light. Special light bulbs or lightboxes are available, used with guidance from a physician, to help overcome the symptoms.
As the seasons turn, I have watched the park across the street bedecked with orange lights celebrating Halloween morph into Christmas, with lights of different colors. The commercial world knows the importance of artificial light to the human psyche, but our ancestors in the ancient world knew light in a very different way.
It’s not just about beauty, though there was always that aspect of the sun, moon, and stars, but when you can’t control those sources of light and only add to them with fire and feeble candle flame there is awe and reverence too. Ancient peoples knew that sunlight gave life to plants, allowed easier hunting and fishing, gave warmth, and in general made living easier. Many of the ancient traditions regarding light lasted in this country and Europe into the early 20th century, allowing schools to close at the end of May so that children could help in the fields, planting, haying, and harvesting. Old sayings such as, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” stated the reality of early agricultural life tuned to the available light.
Our efforts to light the world with electricity work well in the mundane world of labor and commerce, but there is a reason birthdays, weddings, religious services, and the most sophisticated social events are illuminated by wax candles; they are closer to our species’ memory and reverence for warmth and a flickering flame.
This past year (2020) in particular, probably because we were more house-bound than usual due to COVID-19, the failing light of late fall and early winter has been more noticeable to me. As a child in northern England, my mother would say, as she got me out of bed and off to school, “It’s one of the dark days before Christmas!” So true! The cold walk to the bus and the walk home at the end of the day were in darkness. Of course, in summer we enjoyed daylight until at least 9-10 p.m., though as kids we had to “Go to bed by day,” as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his poem, “Bed in Summer.”
Today we see the calendar changes of the year through the eyes of our society, whatever and where ever that may be. Holidays, not natural changes, are how we plan our social and to a great extent the business lives of our society. Much of this has to do with the complexity of modern life, non-agricultural work outside the home, schools, colleges, etc. but the greatest change was the development of industrial and domestic lighting. These changes impacted working- life in many ways, by enabling the development of manufacturing and retail and by increasing the lighted hours when people could work. Today, factories work round the clock and shift work is the norm.
We celebrate Christmas very close to the real turning of the year according to the Solar Calendar. This event in the Solar Calendar is probably more striking in the Northern latitudes than in the Southern summer. We have been programmed to think of January 1 as the New Year, but the shortest day of the year is between Dec. 20 and 23. In 2020 it was Dec. 21. So in fact from a solar point of view the next “New Year’s Day” was Dec. 22. It’s difficult for us to accept these variable dates; it’s so inconvenient! Commerce and religious celebrations have over- lain the celebrations of our ancient ancestors, but for people who were so focused on survival and the seasonal changes which impacted their lives, their relationship to their environment was very intimate.
As soon as the Shortest Day passes the sun’s power in the north begins to increase. January begins the return of the light. The Ancients breathed a sigh of relief that their music and rituals had saved the Sun from death and that flocks and crops and families would prosper again. This is what I am watching and hoping for. Despite the snow and ice to come, I shall look to the light, watch the days grow longer and wait for spring!