December 21, 2019

Moving with the Earth Into Winter with a Few Poems

frost flowers on my car window

A Winter Solstice actually occurs twice a year, once in December in the Northern Hemisphere (also called December solstice and Midwinter) and once in June in the Southern Hemisphere (also called June solstice). In the Northern Hemisphere, it is usually December 21 or 22 and in the Southern Hemisphere, it's usually June 20 or 21.

In 2010, the solstice and Full Moon coincided and in 2009 I wrote a post about another coincidence of a Full Moon on December 31 to end the year that was also the second full moon of the month, and so was considered a "Blue Moon.”

Solstices have long been celebrated and written about. It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night, and it marks the astronomical first day of winter.

solstice sunrise at Stonehenge

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years.

You probably know that many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The most famous example is the stone circles of Stonehenge which were placed to receive the first rays of the midwinter sun.

We often see winter - in everyday life and in poetry - as a depressing time of year. Death symbolism abounds. At least in northern climes, you tend to be confined indoors. Outside looks bare and dead. But solstice celebrations focus more on hope with the reversal of shortening days. It is more seen as a time to celebrate the rebirth of the year.

The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) since to the ancients the sun did seem to stand still now. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses had their meetings on the winter and summer solstices.

In many cultural histories, this is the time when virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi, Isis to Horus, Demeter to Persephone and Mary to Jesus.

You can take a scientific look at the solstice. We know that as the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year. That is because of the changing orientation of the Earth's tilted rotation axes with respect to the Sun.  When we arrive at the points of maximum tilt (marked at the equator), we get the summer and winter solstice.

Two poems I found in my Full Moon and solstice search became models for a past writing prompt that uses the solstice (and perhaps the Full Moon) without falling into the cliches of winter and moon symbolism.

The first is "December Moon" from May Sarton's collection Coming into Eighty.

The second model is Mary Oliver's poem "Herons in Winter in the Frozen Marsh" (from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays)

William Carlos Williams' "Approach of Winter" says:

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

Some people are sad or suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in winter, so as an antidote have your own solstice celebrations and try to focus on the hope of this day starting the reversal of shortening days. It is as a time to celebrate the rebirth of the year.

How about this stanza from "Toward the Winter Solstice" by Timothy Steele.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Here are a few more to read that have a range of reactions to the Winter Solstice.

"Again a Solstice" by Jennifer Chang
"Fairbanks Under the Solstice" by John Haines
You can also listen to Robert Graves' "To Juan at the Winter Solstice"

Have a great solstice, winter, and new year!

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