The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

In Darkness

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Now, there are even more timely climate-related topics I could write about, but I still see no way to pick one. So my plan is to use my traditional New Years year-in-review post to catch up, and in the meantime I’ll discuss the holidays a bit–Solstice this week, Christmas next week.

The winter solstice is a holiday for various groups of people, but it may be unfamiliar to others. The short explanation is that the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice is the longest. Note that the winter solstice only falls in December in the northern hemisphere–in the southern hemisphere, December is late spring/early summer, and the month of their summer solstice. The days when day and night are equal are the equinoxes.  When I use the word “solstice” as the name of a holiday, I capitalize it, but not otherwise.

The reason that many different religions have holidays in December is that they either honor the winter solstice or incorporate cultural practices from earlier religions that did. Light and hope are common themes across cultures for this time of year. The usual explanation is that primitive peoples developed these traditions because they worried that the days would just keep getting shorter and then the world would be dark and cold forever. They lit fires and sang songs and so forth in order to magically strengthen the sun or to celebrate it’s “miraculous” return.

That doesn’t make sense.

While humans may once have worried about the sun in that way, they must have figured out otherwise a very long time ago. For one thing, if a people honestly didn’t know the sun was coming back, how would they know what time of year to hold their festival? Or if they believed only magic brought the sun back, why delay magical operations until the time of the solstice? Why not begin as soon as the days started to shrink?

No, they knew. Even thousands of years ago, the predictable transition from shrinking days to growing days was used as a metaphor for things that felt similar but couldn’t be predicted, such as injury, illness, famine, or the evils humans can do to each other–or sometimes triumph over.

That insight was impressed on me one night when I went backpacking alone over the solstice and found the weather much colder than I prepared for. I had planned to celebrate the holiday in solitude in the woods, a rather romantic idea that fell apart when all my water froze and I had to retreat to my sleeping bag shortly after the sun went down so I wouldn’t freeze, too. My bag was plenty warm enough, but since I didn’t know how cold the night would get, I didn’t know that. And if my bag wasn’t warm enough, I knew there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it.

That Solstice, I knew the sun would come up the next morning, but I wasn’t sure I’d see it.

And none of us really knows. My dog, CurlyQ, won’t see the sun come up Solstice morning this year–she died a week ago tonight. Day length varies. Life involves both sickness and health, both beginnings and ends, and for the most part we don’t know when or if one might turn into the other. The return of the sun carries hope for the good news we can’t predict.

What does all this have to do with climate?

I don’t know if this human endeavor is going to work out. Frankly, I think we may simply have dropped the ball as a species, and if hope still exists it is only hope–it’s a long time before we’ll get good news, if we ever do. The night of anthropogenic climate change grows long.

Religion–and the less traditional spiritual traditions–have always been, at bottom, about answering a single question; given what we know about how the world works, what do our lives mean? All the holidays of all the cultures in the world are neither more nor less than reminders of many generations’ answers to those questions.

In the face of climate change, do we need a new holiday? Or simply a new face to our old holidays, like Solstice?

What does it mean that the world we are a part of is being killed and too many people don’t care? What does that mean about our lives? How do we survive the long night?




Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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