Monday, December 21, 2009

The reason for the season

The sun rose this morning, right on schedule and exactly as predicted, at 6:52 a.m. Central Standard Time. It will set at 5:05 p.m., giving New Orleans a net 10 hours and 13 minutes of daylight on the day of the Winter Solstice.

If this discussion seems technical and nerdy, take that as a sign of progress. Most modern people just don't worry about the length of days so much anymore. Unless you're engaged in agrarian work or your livelihood is otherwise directly impacted by the amount of daylight, the cycle of days is just a novelty, an esoteric event of little note.

Once upon a time, the length of days was of vital importance. Shorter days and colder weather were feared because they often brought hunger and death. Superstitions arose to explain why the sun, the source of warmth and life, would seem to lose its power each year. And rituals were devised to encourage the sun's return to full strength.

Thanks to science and the work of astronomers and mathematicians over the centuries and including today, we know there is nothing magical or mystical about Winter Solstice. We know that it is just a particular moment in the ongoing journey of our Earth around Sol, our sun. We know that formulas comprehensible by any math major demonstrably predict with convincing accuracy and precision that the laws of physics apply perfectly to the motion of the planets and the pattern of seasons.

Winter Solstice used to be a time to wallow in fear and uncertainty. People wondered if the "god" of the sun would abandon us. Later we created rituals based on superstition to replace that fear with hope for rebirth. Angels and miracles assured us that the "Son" would conquer the darkness and save us.

Today, we can all but ignore the passing of the Winter Solstice, and for that we can thank science.

It's no coincidence that so many important days of the calendar all occur on or about the Winter Solstice. New Year's, Christmas and Hanukkah were all planned to coincide with this shortest day of the year. So were many other religious rituals and observances long forgotten.

But I like to remember that they all come back to this: Winter Solstice. Although it may seem blasphemous to some, it is the real "reason for the season."

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