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Sunday Late Nite: Solstice Perspective

We have some Solstice traditions in my family that have little to do with a faith tradition and more to do with things that have happened over the years. These have accumulated into tradition not because of any particular belief in any particular supernatural being or divine offspring thereof; just because we do these things year after year, they’ve become important and meaningful.

I’m pretty sure that makes us some kind of pagans, but more on that in a moment.

The fiance and I were lucky enough to get in the mail from my mom last year the pink tinsel star that I, in my budding career as a impetuous and headstrong decorator at all of eight years old, demanded sit atop our family tree at the holiday season. According to my parents, there was much rushing about on the night-before-presents, to any number of stores, hoping to find the Pink Star I’d demanded. Nowadays, the Pink Star crowns our wee apartment-sized tree, whether the tree is white-flocked or pink-flocked — or not-flocked-at-all, as this year’s tree is.

I’m unsure I ever understood the significance of the Pink Star, and the reasons for it can’t be recalled. When asked, my mother simply says, "You wanted a Pink Star, and were quite insistent that nothing else would do — and that nothing else was required." So, nowadays we have a Pink Star but don’t really know the reason why.

Another non-faith-based belief in our house is our sense that there will be a Tree Waiting when we arrive at The Emerald Forest at Nineteenth Avenue and Sloat Boulevard, whenever that happens to be. Five years in a row now, we walk onto the Solstice tree lot — whether in early December because we’ve got parties planned and want the house decorated for them or just the week beforehand. And no matter what day in December we walk onto the tree lot, and no matter how many families are trudging up and down the rows looking for exactly the right tree — so many parameters: type, height, diameter, freshness, fullness, uprightness, color! — and no matter how many helpers try to engage us, we always find our Tree Waiting just for us right at the entrance.

We don’t know how that tree manages to get from wherever it’s been hiding in time for our arrival, or how that tree knows when we’re going to show up — since we get our tree at very different times in December. But, again, it’s a tradition that’s been reinforced by repetition and the strong belief that it’ll happen again each year. And it does.

Another family tradition is the one we have on the Solstice when my little brother calls every year. He lives even farther north than I do, way up in Vancouver British Columbia, where the days get very short very fast in December. But, without fail, he calls sometime during the day the solstice falls on, just to cheerily announce on the day winter officially begins, "Every day from now until June will be longer than today!" It takes a special kind of Solstice optimism, on the darkest day when winter begins, to see it as a road of continuous improvement, approaching ever-sunnier days, don’t you think?

And on the subject of optimistic interpretations of the Solstice — the moment when the sun is at its southernmost point and beginning to trek northward — I’d like to be sure you’re acquainted with the Newgrange Passage-Tomb in County Meath, Ireland. More than three thousand years before the birth of the lad whose birthday some folks celebrate day after tomorrow, some clever Northlanders arranged tons and tons of rock and earth into a configuration that reveals a narrow shaft of light only on the five days surrounding the Solstice. This huge tomb — thirty feet tall and 250 feet in diameter — was built a thousand years before Stonehenge and more than 500 years before the Giza Pyramids, both amazing engineering feats whose complete astrophysical or mystical purpose still eludes us today. While we may not know exactly the purpose of aligning so much stone and soil to create such a display on only five days of the year, we do now know that it is intentional.

And the amazing thing, to me, is that 2007 is only the fortieth anniversary of our having figured out the clock-calendar nature of Newgrange. This amazing structure was created by people who knew enough about the motion of the earth and our sun to devise a narrow shaft in the roof of the rock tomb, so that light only shines to its floor on five days every year — for seventeen minutes!. And this knowledge, that such a creation existed along with the knowledge to create it, was lost for more than five thousand years.

Modern humanity re-discovered the Solstice apparatus of Newgrange Tomb-Passage only two years before we landed one of us on the moon. Just imagine what other machines our forebears might have created that we have completely lost — and how many there may be yet to re-discover on our planet. Somehow, though, it’s very fitting to me that Newgrange was newly revealed to us before we set foot on another celestial body. These early humans devised their Solstice marker in a way that would later reveal itself to us — not written in fading ink on fragile parchment, not handed down from generation to generation in tales that might morph to be used to bulwark one political or religious empire, but built into earthworks and carved into tons of stone.

What amazing respect these early humans had for their planet, for its flinging beautifully through dark space, relating consequentially to its life-giving sun, that on this commemorated day would begin to spend more and more time with them daily as the earth slowly warmed. What astonishing belief humanity had then — that it was worthwhile building such an extraordinary timepiece to last for eons, thereby communicating to their descendants their intelligence and grasp of their world and the place it occupied in the cosmos. And what simple faith these people had then: that there would be people who would see what they had done and decode it, because the earth’s relationship to the sun was fixed and immutable enough to them to haul and carve and build and align.

Seems to me we ought to do a better job of ensuring the planet they treasured is preserved and protected — and that we ought to better manage those who do the earth and her inhabitants harm. I don’t expect my Solstice traditions — the Pink Star, the Waiting Tree, my brother’s Every-Day-Longer phone call — to persevere as long as the Newgrange Passage-Tomb.

It would be nice, though, if our planet would last at least as long as the Newgrange Passage-Tomb has, wouldn’t it?

We current earth-tenants need to acknowledge the optimism and forward-looking nature of our forebears and better steward the shared capsule we inherited, don’t you think? Hadn’t we better execute the living we do to at least ensure that there’s still a place for people to live and enjoy? Shouldn’t we treat more severely those whose activities harm our planet — and her beautiful inhabitants? Shouldn’t we deal more sternly with those who foul our common nest? Isn’t there a way to live more gently on this tiny globe of ours?

Don’t the constructors of Newgrange Passage-Tomb deserve at least that much respect from their inheritors — from us?

Let’s honor our ancestors by placing our planet’s future in the hands of those who treat her the best, shall we?

Happy Solstice, everyone!

(youtube of Straight No Chaser at Indiana University, h/t Peterr)

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Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge

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