The Solstice can show up anytime between 20th December and the 23rd because the calendar in our cell phone or hanging on the wall does not fit neatly into astronomical reality.
Many of us have trouble adjusting to reality.
Thing is, the calendar counts the year as 365 days, even. The universe thinks it’s 365.256 days.
These thing do not match and no amount of refreshing your computer screen is going to change this. We are all playthings in the hands of the gods.
I suppose you could take a post-it note a quarter the size of one of the calendar days and let it dangle off the end of December. That would be more accurate.
Anyhow, that’s why the date of the Solstice changes from year to year.
This year the shortest, darkest day of the year, the Solstice, falls on a Monday.
After all, it’s 2020.
On the Solstice the sun will move into Sagittarius. You’d say into the House of Sagittarius, if you think of the Zodiac signs as living in fancy houses up in the sky, which I am perfectly willing to do.
You’d think this means you can look up into the night sky and get a really good view of the constellation Sagittarius, wouldn’t you?
Au contraire, as the French would say.
When the sun is in Sagittarius it means it’s sitting on top of Sagittarius. You’d have to look directly through the sun to see the constellation. Sagittarius won’t be up at night on the 21st. It’s going to be high in the sky at noon, hiding in the light.
So, you're thinking. That means the sun is between us and the constellation of Sagittarius on the Winter Solstice.
Well. It is.
But, y'know. Things … change.
The sky is complicated.
2160 years ago, about the time Carthage fell, the constellation of Scorpio was tucked behind the noonday sun instead of Sagittarius in that place. Wait another 2160 years and the sun’ll be hiding Capricorn.
Wait patiently for 25,772 years and we’ll be back to Sagittarius again
having gone through the whole zodiac.
People figured this stuff out a long, long time ago which was very clever of them.
I think, sometimes, of our distant forefathers and foremothers out in the dark, keeping an eye on the ewes in lambing season. Maybe with a herd of goats and a couple of dogs, up in the hills, taking advantage of the grass that came with the last autumn rains.
They’d lie back and watch the night. They’d have names for all of those bunches of stars. They’d see the constellations circle the sky and know which was coming up next over the horizon. They’d know about what time it would rise in each season.
They’d make up stories to explain all this.
Eventually, some very smart folks figured it all out.
And the Solstice?
When the sun came up in the morning your shepherd lass would see exactly where it rose behind that crooked tree. Six weeks later it’d be a different place, over that rock or mountain peak.
It would repeat, exactly, every year.
And one day in the coldest months, the sun rose as far north as it ever would.
That was the Solstice. The longest, darkest night . . . but also the day the sun started coming back. From that time onward, every day would be longer.
5000-year-old Stonehenge marks the Solstice with great unwieldy rocks brought in with some difficulty and probably huge cost overruns. In Ireland Newgrange mesolithic tomb built about the same time does the same. And the Temple of Karnak.
So many stone monuments to the Solstice.
Really, it’s everywhere. Monuments to the hopeful day all over the earth.
We can be fairly sure folks celebrated.
Take the Romans.
What did the Romans get up to in this astronomically significant season?
Saturnalia. Because the dour old god Saturn is the perfect deity to kick off a couple day of outrageous fun.
It began on December 17 and lasted to the 23. Homes were decorated with wreaths and other greenery. Family and friends visited and feasted and exchanged gifts. Wax candles called cerei were common gifts, given to celebrate the light returning.
It was a time to let go of the established order of things. Men traded their togas for colorful clothes known as synthesis. In a topsy-turvy celebration of disorder, slaves were free of work and their masters might serve them at table.
Cattullus called it “The best of days.”
If you were to oversee a celebration of Saturnalia on December 21, what would you have people do?
Wreathes of bayberry and laurel? Snowpeople in scanty costumes in the front yard? A huge feast, but with all ancient Roman food? Body painting?
Traditionally, Saturnalia is transgressive, so you can be transgressive.
Maybe the boss has to bring everybody coffee.
It can be transgressive.