We know it will change, because we know how the tilt of the Earth's axis and its rotation around the sun work together to produce the length of our days and the cycle of our seasons. Our ancestors long ago weren't lucky enough to be gifted with the same knowledge. They worried each fall and winter as the days grew darker and colder. What if it didn't change? What if the sun decided to desert us forever? When the solstice arrived and the days started lengthening again it must have seemed like a miracle, something to celebrate.
We have lost some of this fear of the darkness. Our scientific knowledge tells us that winter will cycle over to summer again, that this is only temporary. Moreover relatively few of us, at least in America, know what it is to be truly in the dark or in the cold for any extended period of time. We have electric lighting at the flip of a switch, heat at the touch of a dial. Even when the power is out we know that sooner or later it will be restored. (And even that is scary enough.) But our ancestors had only hope and faith to hold on to till the sun came again. And when it did they felt gratitude and celebrated to show that gratitude.
Maybe this year the Mayan Calender nonsense did serve that much of a purpose. Maybe one thought for just a second that the Solstice miracle wouldn't happen this year, that the light wouldn't return. And for just the moment we felt what our ancestors felt so much more deeply: fear.
It's not a coincidence that nearly every religious group in the world has evolved a holiday at this time when the sun seems born again. What better to celebrate than the promise of another cycle of seasons, another year of life? In our house we mark both Yule, at the actual date of the solstice, and Christmas. For a few years we had a Jewish friend living nearby who was without family in the area and we kept Hanukkah with her. A chief feature of all these festivals, and many others is light. Candles in the Menorah or the Advent wreath, lights on the Christmas Tree, burning a Yule Log.
I have always felt sorry for people who chose to not celebrate anything at all this time of year. As the days get darker and the weather get worse, there is, even in our technological age, a deep seated desire to light a candle in the darkness. Or as Jerry Herman so memorably put it in Mame: "We need a Little Christmas"
Last week I wrote about my favorite Christmas songs, and I mentioned one of my favorites was "The Christmas Wish" from John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. I love the song because it gets to what is, for me, the heart of the matter: whether you "Believe" in Christmas or not, if you believe in love, and Light in the Darkness, that's reason enough to celebrate.
And for the pure joy of the solar return, you can't beat George Harrison: