Monday, December 21, 2009

The Reason For The Season

Axial tilt: My friend Benia brought to my attention that axial tilt is the reason for the season. Our earth revolves around the sun with a rotational axis that is akimbo to the plane of its orbit. This means that as we revolve, we have seasons. If our axis was perpendicular to our rotational plane, we would have a planet nicely layered with climates that ranged from hot at the equator to cool at the poles, a smooth gradient, and within each band, a uniform climate throughout the year. Each of our days would be exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Other than changing star patterns as we went around the sun, there would be no reason to note the passing of a year, one revolution. But we sit tilted, 23.44 degrees off perpendicular, so that during part of our rotation, up here in the northern hemisphere, we tip toward the sun and as we rotate, more than half of our 24 hours are spent in light, and less than half in darkness, so that the surface can warm up for longer than it cools down, resulting in warming temperatures. During the other half of our rotation, we are tipped away from the sun, with a longer period in darkness than in light, allowing the surface to cool. So we owe our seasons to axial tilt. The change in temperatures happens gradually, as the energy in the atmosphere accumulates, so that the temperatures lag behind the times of daylight. So even though the change has snapped from days getting to shorter to days getting longer, we have our coldest bleakest leanest time yet to come. Yet because the change to days growing longer HAS occurred, we know that it will indeed warm up on schedule. And past civilizations have known these colder seasons as times of less plenty, of dwindling resources such as green plants and plant seeds to eat and less game that is out and about to hunt. And so, people have recognized that the days got shorter, then again got longer, and watched carefully to count out those turning points.
The point where the days ceased to grow shorter and began to get longer again represented a sign of hope to people that the warmer seasons were going to return again, and food and warmth would be plentiful again. And so they marked that time with a festival. December 21 is approximately the day on which this turn takes place, and archaeologists and anthropologists and sociologists agree that nearly all societies scheduled holidays around this time of year. Indigenous Scandinavian peoples held feast to a goddess of fertility and sanity on the winter solstice; the Greeks celebrated a feast to Bacchus. We are perhaps most familiar with the Jewish Hanukkah and the Christian Christmas, coincidentally the same day that the Romans marked winter solstice. Many cultures begin their new year on this winter solstice date and celebrate it less as a religious holiday than as the marking of the beginning of another year. Most cultures celebrate with a feast with symbolic foods, many celebrate with gifts, such as in India where sweet treats and sweet fruits were and are exchanged. Many of the New Year celebrations give nod to the celestial nature of the passing of one year and the beginning of the next with some sort of tradition that involves light or the sky, such as flying kites in India, fireworks in China, and candles in Scandinavia. Celts and Druids and many others build markers so that on the exact dates, the sunlight would shine in alignment with some mark. Zuni, May, and Hopi marked this winter solstice as the beginning of the new year with plant and fire rituals and feasts.
Gifts are symbolic of our interdependence on each other and on the abundance of the seasons that are promised to us with the lengthening of days. Light and fire symbolize the sun on which the cycle and life depends. Foods and feasting celebrate the return of abundance as well as our relation to each other.
So whatever your religion, you probably celebrate something this time of year, whether a god or goddess or saint or spirit is honored, or it is a celestial event, the passing of one year to the next. But the giving of gifts, the lighting of special lights, the preparing and sharing of special foods are all ways that we celebrate hope for the future and recognize that it is in the lengthening of the days and the return of warmer seasons that will bring us abundance, but also in our dependence upon each other and our associations with each other that we find our greatest satisfaction and joy as people. Celebrate the season of the lengthening of the days in whatever ways you wish and treasure the people around you who make your life worth living.

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