STARS AND THE WINTER SOLSTICE

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Stonehenge at Winter Solstice

This is a time of year when we look to the night sky for a sign. It’s not for nothing the depths of darkness are the beginnings of hope and our desire for the return of the healing light. People around the world and over the generations of time have celebrations of feasting, family reunions, and honoring their culture’s gods on the darkest day, or the Winter Solstice. The term solstice derives from the Latin word “sōlstitium”, meaning “the Sun stands still”. On the Winter Solstice, the sun reaches its southern-most position, shines directly on the Tropic of Capricorn, and seems to stand still there.

We’re all familiar with Stonehenge, a Neolithic stone monument in England built about 4,500 years ago to track important moments in the solar year. A later custom is the blazing Yule Log, a Norse tradition. The family would drag a huge piece of wood into their house, set it into the main fireplace, and let it burn for several days. It was a type of sympathetic magic to encourage the distant and faint sun to return, reinvigorated. The family often wrote down their desires for the new year as an offering to the gods. These were then burned in the fire. Afterwards, the family scattered ashes from the fire in the corners of every room in the house for good luck.

Hiroshige: The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō

The Chinese also have a Winter Solstice festival, which once was a new year’s festival. The family gathers to eat traditional foods, and they honor their ancestors, as well as the old ones still living among them. This poem by Ruan Yue, in the late Northern Song Dynasty speaks of this:

罗袜新成,更有何人继后尘。
The socks for elders are newly woven;
the custom should be handed down.

A later poet of the Song Dynasty, Fan Chengda, had a more optimistic outlook on the dreary and dark days before the Winter Solstice, or perhaps he was using “positive pep talk to reframe his grumpy mind.”

休把心情关药裹,但逢节序添诗轴。
Don’t be thinking about medicines all the time;
write a new poem at the solar term.

I can relate to Fan Chengda, for I find I have difficulty waking up without the sun streaming into my bedroom windows. I’m also more irritable and mopey on these dark days. It’s probably Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a form of depression related to the lack of light in this season. I tend to think dark thoughts, feel more pain, and lose my appetite, except for medicinal chocolate, which I consume under the Tim Allen mantra, “If some is good, more should be better!”

For Medicinal Purposes Only

When I get this type of mood on, the commercial Christmas we see on television and in the movies strikes a discordant note in my soul. I think about the ancient text, which reminds us when the parents of Jesus went to Bethlehem to be counted in the census: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

What most of us glide right over is Joseph had kinfolks galore in this town, but none of them opened their home to Mary, for she was pregnant before he married her. The innkeepers in town weren’t going to risk their reputations for these two either. Only one innkeeper took pity on them and let them stay with the animals in the stable. This marks the birth of the Christ child as an outsider to his whole extended family, the House of David.

Botticelli: Nativity, 1475

The Magi, or Wise Men, came from the East to visit King Herod, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”( Matthew 2:2)

Herod was worried he would be deposed, so he sent the Magi to find this child, then return and report to him. The Magi followed the star until it stopped over the place where the family was staying. They offered their gifts and returned home, without telling Herod where the baby was. Jesus was an outsider to the Roman occupation which propped up the local kings. He was a threat to the way governments rule the world.

Shepherds are the epitome of outsiders in the Bible, for they live outdoors among sheep and goats, neither of which are clean. In fact, anyone who’s gone camping knows how hard staying clean is. Glamping isn’t camping, and neither is RVing. My youthful experiences in Girl Scout camps of pitching tents and digging rain gutters is the closest I’ve ever been to living on the land. Even then, we had outhouses and cold water showers. The biblical city folk who could keep the ritual rules of cleanliness looked down on the shepherds as a lower class group, or outside of society.

Imagine a group of shepherds sitting around a nighttime fire, eating a simple meal, and chatting about their day or their families at home. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:9). I’d be terrified also, as I imagine you would be too! There’s a good reason the first words out of angels’ mouths are “Do not be afraid!”

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Giotto: Nativity at Padua

If ever the outcasts of the world needed good news, if ever the hopeless needed a savior, if ever the least of all needed one just like them, it was these lowly shepherds, who went to find a newborn child lying in an animal’s feeding stall. No fancy crib for the newborn king, no royal robes or golden crown, just ordinary swaddling clothes. He looked just like any other child, except his birth was proclaimed by angels, honored by Magi from afar, and given a place through the grace of a kind innkeeper.

Those of us who will celebrate Christmas with our families, our extended friends, and our relations in a wild, chaotic buzz of coming and going, feasting and drinking, and perhaps exchanging of gifts, don’t know the quiet and holy night when the light of the world entered “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79)

We keep our homes lit inside and out with megawatts of electric lights, both colored and white. Some of us even cue our lights to blink to seasonal music. Those of us who live beyond the great urban areas, can better see the stars at night, since there’s no light pollution. This is one reason we need to keep our national parks as close to nature as possible, for one day, these may be the only places people can marvel at the bright stars against the dark canopy of the sky above.

Gail: Stars across the Sky

Gail brings her love of the outdoors and her experience as a park ranger to her work. Over the trees, a floating band of stars become a pathway across the night sky.

Mike: Sun, Moon, and Stars

Even if our assignment was stars, that never means “only stars.” After all, the sun is a star, which is very close to us, astronomically speaking. If you’re going to have the sun and stars, you might as well have the moon also. I always say, “Why not?” The Tim Allen rule sometimes applies in art class: “More power!” When you go too far on the Tim Allen scale, that’s when his sidekick Al reminds him, “Sometimes less is more.” Mike certainly captures the energy and joy of the celestial bodies in this painting through the bold colors and strong brush strokes.

Sally: The Cosmos

Sally had an idea in her mind, but no image to look at. She wanted to show the cosmos in motion, as if God were looking down upon it. In her mind’s eye, she imagined this from memory. As she worked on the small canvas, she’d add more paint into the areas which weren’t quite dry and got somewhat frustrated at the paint not bending to her will. As a matter of technique, painting into a dry area is better than continuing to add color to a wet area, since the wet brush picks up the wet layers below that. Mike and Gail, having many sessions under their belts, have already crossed this particular bridge. She also learned something significant. It’s easier to paint something when you can look at it. I think it’s a good start and it holds promise: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41).

Cornelia: Starry Night

I’m not a fast walker, nor do I get down the road quickly. I’m too busy noting the color of the sky, thinking what colors to mix to get the grey trees of a late December day, or how to paint the towering cumulus clouds of summer. I file these thoughts away in the treasure house of my mind, for one day I’ll need them. I look at the shadows of the leaf clumps on trees, but not at each leaf alone. The tree leaves are communities, not individuals. They exist as groups, so the artist treats them as such.

I’m not sure about others, but many walkers are fixed on their personal best speed, or going a half mile longer. Some people drive to the grocery store and make their list in their head as they go. In the store, they make a new to do list for the home, and once that’s done, they make another list for the next day. The cycle starts all over again. They never once raise their eyes to greet the stars, to note the cycles of the moon, to enjoy the sunset colors, or the sunrise either. They’re probably more productive than I am, but I take time to reflect deeply on the “why of things” rather than repeating the same rhythms over and over. Most people like the familiar rhythms, however, while I question if they still have meaning in today’s world.

Today I saw the Winter Solstice Dawn

In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans thought the stars had a power and energy to determine the fates of human beings. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and stoic philosopher of the 2nd century, wrote in his Meditations: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” From his privileged location, he could identify with the heroic persons in the astrological figures of mythology.

Some people are “born under a bad sign,” or are unlucky in life. Of course, some say we make our own luck, but people born into harsh circumstances lack the same resources to make choices for good. The deck is stacked against them, from living in trauma filled neighborhoods to a lack of quality foods due to a paucity of grocery stores. As Albert King, the great blues artist once sang, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

The good news is the bright light of the Christmas star points to the new light, which has come into the world. We hear, amidst the cacophony of commercials and piped in musical carols, the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (60:1).

As a gift, you can listen to the great Albert King sing “Born Under a Bad Sign,” by copying the link below to your browser.
https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=F2IqJtBL6yk&list=OLAK5uy_kRTT9VaZ7Ht_pjIoBhtqhS_99sMi_D5a4

Our art class returns Friday, January 4, 2022, at 10 am. I hope to bring pomegranates, if I can still find them in the store. We’ll make a fresh start in the New Year, so if you want to join, you’ll start where you are. We are a “one room schoolhouse,” so there’s no grade levels with us. We’re all learning and improving from where we are at the moment.

Joy and peace,

Cornelia

How to Make a Yule Log
https://www.learnreligions.com/make-a-yule-log-2563006

5 Most Beautiful Chinese Winter Solstice Poems to Appreciate
https://www.travelchinaguide.com/essential/holidays/winter-solstice-poems.htm

The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness | CIRES
https://cires.colorado.edu/Artificial-light

Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to December!

art, Christmas, coronavirus, Faith, Family, Food, grief, Hanukkah, holidays, Imagination, Ministry, nature, pandemic, purpose, vaccinations, winter solstice

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” my daddy was fond of saying. We often long for the “way things used to be,” as if the Golden Age of the past was the best of all times. Yet, that past often exists only in our memories, but not in the lived reality of all persons. This is the classic story of the young prince, who while sheltered within the confines of his sumptuous palace never knew want, but once he walked among his people, he saw suffering and need everywhere. Today we know him as the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama. Many over the centuries have wondered why suffering exists in the world, or why they themselves must suffer. The Buddha saw all life as suffering, or rather our inability to accept the impermanence, change, and dissatisfaction with the present moment.

Rabbit Buddha

The Golden Age is a myth and poetic concept, as well as a political and philosophical construct. It began in Greece and was fixed in people’s minds by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Golden Age is a dream of an “earlier time when people lived peaceful, untroubled lives, and the earth supplied all their wants.” Those who read the Bible can easily find a parallel story in the first humans, who lived in the Garden of Eden. Of all the high and holy days in our cultural calendar, Christmas rates number one for nostalgia, both the personal kind and the universal type.

Nostalgia is the state of being homesick, or a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning, either for the return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. It can be a salve for those who suffer, or it can be more salt poured into an open wound. It just depends on how one frames the experience. We feel “homesick “ in the worst possible way, for we yearn for the security of the familiar and the safe. Mostly we yearn for the people we love and are kin to us.

Happy Rabbit Family

I remember the year I divorced my husband. It was necessary, for I couldn’t trust him to care for our daughter due to his alcoholism. The first Christmas was hard, for his family chose him and shut me out, as did all his friends. Decorating the Christmas tree was always a family affair in the Golden Age of my memories of Christmas. If this year I had no family, I would bring friends to decorate my tree. Just because I’d always celebrated one way before, I wouldn’t let my circumstances keep me from finding joy this Christmas. I called my young mother friends, invited their families to my home, and we decorated my tree within an inch of its life. It was my best tree ever! And then we ate and drank a toast to our creation. My friends were salve for my suffering, and helped me create a good memory, which still gives me pleasure to this day, four decades later.

Big Holiday Family Dinners

Christmas brings families together, but this is a double edged sword. While we all want to be with our families, we also know oil and water don’t mix. After both my parents died, I often ate with some of my clergy pals’ families. I was glad to know they had relatives who also wore their crazy pants to dinner. If I ate with congregation members, they were often on their best behavior, as if I were some sort of god on earth. You’d think after six months at a charge, I’d already have disabused them of that notion, but some people never see your true nature, but only the image of every pastor they’ve ever known before. More often, I’d get pastoral calls of family crises during holiday seasons, so after years of this recurrence, I finally learned to plan for it. I eventually realized we all have a Golden Age of Christmas in our minds, but in real life, we live in the Age of Iron. When reality hits our delusions, the disconnect is palpable. We feel it in our very bones.

1896 Thomas Nast illustration in Clement Clark Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

For many Americans, images of Victorian Christmases include memories of “children all snug in their beds with their visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads,” which we recognize as one of the opening lines of Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” These sugar plums aren’t sugared fruits, but are more like candy covered peanuts or almonds. Jelly beans also are made by this same process. Whatever these treats were, the children dreamed of a world of happiness, sweetness, and delight.

As my Depression Era mother would say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would be kings.” That outlook never stopped me or my brothers from wanting everything in the Sears Christmas catalog, even though we knew these were just suggestions for Santa. Yet we never felt deprived, for whatever we received was a gift, plus it was more than we had before. On Thanksgiving day this year, consumers spent at a pace of at least $3.5 million per minute on line due to stores being closed for the holiday. This year, the average household is pegged to spend $924 for online shopping, more than double the $440 expected for in-store.

December 15 is Wear Your Pearls Day

The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects November/December retail sales of $843.4 billion to $859 billion, up 8.5% to 10.5% from 2020 results. NRF said its forecast — excluding automobile dealers, gas stations, and restaurants, and covering Nov. 1 to Dec. 31— tops the previous high of $777.3 billion. This total is up 8.2% over 2020, as well as the average gain of 4.4% over the past five years. This increase is in spite of supply chain hiccups, rising gas prices, and the pockets of as yet unvaccinated individuals, who continue to be the greatest number of COVID admissions to our hospitals. It’s as if we’re trying to replace the suffering of our present with presents for those we love. This also accounts for our desire to donate to charities at this season.

Scrooge of Christmas

Yet the Scrooge of Christmas continues to be COVID, for as an Augusta University Medical analysis released in May of 2021 revealed, which looked at COVID-19 related deaths in vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals—only .8% (150) of vaccinated people accounted for the 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May. If you want to give someone the gift of life this Christmas, take them to the local pharmacy and get them started on their vaccinations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found both infection-induced and vaccine-induced immunity are durable for at least six months — but vaccines are more consistent in their protection and offer a huge boost in antibodies for people previously infected. Unfortunately, unvaccinated persons are also the prime hosts in which the virus can mutate, so the Grinch has already brought us the latest variant of concern, Omicron.

This variant was first identified in the South African peninsula, due to their excellent testing facilities. Of course, now the nations of the world have isolated the countries there, so they now feel punished by these bans. Travelers arriving in major world airports already have tested positive for for this variant, so we can expect disruptions and quarantines worldwide to follow. During this holiday season of restoring relationships, COVID keeps breaking our ties instead of rebuilding them.

DeLee: Found Objects find a home in the No Room Inn

We can long for the Golden Age of light from our younger days, when our parents took on the big worries so we could have the pleasant memories of an untroubled childhood, or we can fix our sight on the lights of our faith. The great star of the east which announced the birth of Jesus was a pale light compared to “The true light, which enlightens everyone, (which) was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) His was “The light (which) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5).

Colorful Menorah

Our Jewish friends meet the darkness of this Hanukkah season with prayers and menorahs, nightly lighting candles to disperse the darkness of hopelessness against great foes. They remember doing battle against spiritual powers, with God empowering their weakness. God never comes for the strong, but has a special kindness for the poor and weak. This is why we should feel blessed, no matter our personal experience, but especially during the holidays. The ceremony begins on November 28 and ends December 6, since it’s set by the lunar calendar.

So also are these December celebrations light filled: Burning the Yule Log on the 4th, St. Lucia on the 13th, the Winter Solstice on the 21st, Kwanzaa on the 26th, and finally, New Year’s Eve. Our good earth will bring its tilt back towards the sun gradually in the days following the winter solstice. This darkness too shall pass, whether it’s our personal grief or our universal suffering.

Winter Solstice brings back the Light

We’ll keep walking until we meet the better land beyond the horizon. If this isn’t yet the Golden Age of our memories or the Golden Age of our sugar plumb dreams, let’s work together as we walk to build a better world for all people, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all my Bunny Friends!

May you have a mindful holiday, full of joy and peace,

Cornelia

Dukkha: What the Buddha Meant by ‘Life Is Suffering’
https://www.learnreligions.com/life-is-suffering-what-does-that-mean-450094

Reckford, Kenneth J. “Some Appearances of the Golden Age.” The Classical Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1958, pp. 79–87, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294223.

Wynne Parry: Why We Feel Nostalgic During the Holidays
https://www.livescience.com/17571-nostalgia-holidays-memories.html

Sugar Plums: They’re Not What You Think They Are – The Atlantic
https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/12/sugar-plums-theyre-not-what-you-think-they-are/68385/

U.S. Thanksgiving Online Shopping Spending to Set Record
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-26/u-s-thanksgiving-spending-to-set-record-as-shoppers-move-online

U.S. holiday retail sales outlook brings good tidings
https://www.supermarketnews.com/consumer-trends/us-holiday-retail-sales-outlook-brings-good-tidings

The Washington Post: CDC finds immunity from vaccines is more consistent than from infection, but both last at least six months
https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/11/01/what-works-better-vaccines-or-natural-immunity/

Staggering COVID-19 Statistic: 98% to 99% of Americans Dying are Unvaccinated – AU/UGA Medical Partnership
https://medicalpartnership.usg.edu/covid-19-staggering-statistic-98-to-99-of-americans-dying-are-unvaccinated/

Night before Christmas, Creator: Moore, Clement Clarke, 1779-1863 ( Author, Primary ), date: c1896, The University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, Donor: Egolf, Robert
McLoughlin Bros., inc ( Publisher )
Nast, Thomas 1840-1902 ( Illustrator ) https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00085407/00001

All of the versions of Clements’ work can be found at the UF Library site. The illustrations are telling of the age in which they drawn.