This shortest day of the year is the Winter Solstice, which is on Wednesday, December 21, at 4:48 P.M. EST, in the Northern Hemisphere. Some think of this as the Longest Night, but I’m a person of the light, not the darkness. I always prefer to look to the light, no matter how dim or feeble it may seem.
Yet darkness is a necessary experience in our lives. We do not yet live in the land of the “unclouded sky” or the heavenly realm:
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” —Revelation 21:23
In the darkness, growth often happens: germination and rooting are two types of unseen activity that help produce the plant we see above ground. Without adequate light, the visible plant won’t thrive. So both darkness and light are at work to produce fruit in our lives.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
The Winter Solstice in Hot Springs is at 3:48 pm CST on Wednesday, December 21, 2022. In terms of daylight, this day is 4 hours, 37 minutes shorter than the June solstice. In most locations north of the equator, the shortest day of the year is around this date. The good news about the Winter Solstice is the days will begin to lengthen, although imperceptibly at first: one minute, four minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes, thirteen minutes, sixteen minutes, and so on.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the sun’s return, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. Today we recognize the source of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song in this festival. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Prosperity for all in the New Year!
In this time of stress and strain, grief and gripes, let’s look to the in-breaking light, and the renewal of life and love. Here’s a “Winter Solstice Chant” by Annie Finch, for your pleasure:
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing, now you are uncurled and cover our eyes with the edge of winter sky leaning over us in icy stars Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing, come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.
Of course, if you can’t get your travel plans together at the last minute to visit Stonehenge, England for the winter solstice celebration, you can always make Rice Krispies Bars in the shape of the ancient monument. The recipe link is at the bottom of the page. Hint: don’t turn the heat up high or your treats will be hard. Due to high carbohydrate count, one “pillar” of Stonehenge Krispies is actually two servings.
Welcome to December! While I was writing this blog, it was Black Friday in November, when many rabbit families were either shopping in person or online. I once did this with my dear rabbit mother, for she loved to shop. As a child of the Great Depression, the thrill of giving gifts, however small to all her friends, was a joy denied to her while growing up. Today we rabbits aren’t so much into giving gifts, but in sharing experiences. We’re making different choices. We aren’t rejecting our forebears’ decisions, but we have different values. As the writer of Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us, everything has its time:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
The holiday season begins earlier and earlier, or maybe I’m just an old rabbit having a fever dream. Last year the supply chain snafus were the Grinch that stole Christmas. Some of you rabbits may have been in a FIFA World Cup worthy soccer scrimmage last year at a big box discounter while trying to score one of the few PlayStations that managed to make its way from China to America on one of the large container ships that wasn’t lost at sea or stuck in the Suez Canal. The good news is the resulting logjam at the shipping docks has since been cleared and all the major retailers expect to get their holiday goods on time, compared to only 53% in 2021. We rabbits aren’t getting this news, however, so about half of us are pessimistic about being able to find our desired gifts in stock.
As a young rabbit, I learned about Murphy’s law from the “Rambling Wrecks from Georgia Tech, who were all one heck of an engineer.” If you’re not familiar with Murphy, his law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” and the corollary law is “It’ll go wrong at the worst possible time and cause the most damage possible.” One would think these engineers were all chronic pessimists who saw the proverbial water glass half empty, but they would claim they’re just realists. Murphy’s Law simply reflects the natural fact we can’t control outcomes or people. Since the results of future actions can’t be avoided, you always should prepare for the worst and rejoice if the best happens instead.
I’ve always been fond of Murphy’s Law, but never more so during the holidays. Holiday festivities always include people, activities done only once a year, and often larger, unsupervised groups (often including alcohol), which means Mr. Murphy is often an uninvited guest. How he manages to sneak in, I have no idea, but he’s shown up in my rabbit den or kitchen more than once. Maybe he has an affinity for my rabbit clan, or perhaps he’s drawn to chaos and confusion. I’m not saying my rabbit family is a rowdy bunch, but we’ve always been loud and active. There’s not much difference between a whirlwind, a tornado, and my two brothers.
I don’t remember Murphy appearing at my Grand Rabbits’ celebrations, but they were of the generation who believed “little rabbits should be seen and not heard.” I imagine they showed Murphy the door if he dropped by. Likewise, when my mother began hosting the holiday meals, the Murphy drama of “anything that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time” also never happened. My mom took on a drill sergeant’s precision when she produced the roast beast feast.
When I bought a little house, Murphy made himself welcome. I invited friends over to decorate the Christmas tree. We stepped back to toast our creation, but the tree crashed forward to the floor, as if it were taking a bow in response. Our toast interrupted, we set the tree upright, tied it to the window handle, and resumed our toast in peace. One day I’ll tell you about my experiences of raking the roof on that little house before the rainy season set in each fall.
Murphy wouldn’t leave me alone. I moved to Texas, bought another little house, and my dear mom and dad invited themselves and my brother’s family over for a holiday feast. She pushed all the potato peels into my starter home’s basic garbage disposal and turned it on. If “Anything can go wrong at the worst possible time and cause the worst damage possible,” my dear bunny mom discovered it.
“I don’t understand; my disposal at home will handle all this.” “Yes, mother. You have a real, custom house, not a starter home. This is a baby disposal.”
Then we got the wastebasket, the pliers, and I put on my plumber’s hat. We pulled out the clog, drained the water, and put it all back together again. Mom was traumatized. Mom kept apologizing, but I reminded her, “It’s no big deal. It won’t happen again. And we have food to eat. We’ll laugh about this one day!”
Murphy still visits me on occasion. But I’ve learned to prepare for him to limit his damages. This thanksgiving I had a friend for dinner. They made a bathroom visit before they left. When I went there, I found the faucet still running and I wasn’t able to turn it off. Water was all over the floor and inside the original cabinet from 1965. I turned off the water under the sink, thinking I was glad I’d asked my plumber to give me new shutoffs when I put the new faucet in. The old ones had froze shut. I’m now brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink, but that’s all right. I’ll probably have to replace this whole thing, all for the demise of a $5 faucet washer. This is Murphy’s Law in a nutshell. Santa will have to visit Lowes or Home Depot for my Christmas gift this year. I hope I’ve been a good rabbit, as the saying goes. And my stocking is extra big.
Christmas isn’t the only holiday of December, although an estimated $942.6 billion in holiday retail sales in the United States might cause us rabbits to think otherwise. One study found that 60% of workers were more distracted and less motivated as the Christmas holidays approached, with some workers even saying this feeling started as early as November. Likewise, during the holiday time many employees will take off to spend time with family or just to enjoy the holiday. That cuts into productivity as well. We have our own Mr. Scrooge in our rabbit towns too. I have any number of rabbit buddies who need time off to hunt and be alone in the woods for a bit. I begrudge them not, as long as their spouses can take care of holidays uninterrupted.
The coming darkness of the Winter Solstice causes people all around the world to light fires and burn candles to overcome the gloom. We’ve done this for ages and in many places. In fact, humans may have observed the winter solstice as early as Neolithic period—the last part of the Stone Age—beginning about 10,200 BCE. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a winter solstice celebration dedicated to the Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth, and time. While it began as a one-day celebration in early December, this pagan festival later expanded into a riotous weeklong party stretching from December 17 to 24.
The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia around 497 BCE on a site originally occupied by an altar to the god. Due to the link between Saturn and agriculture, the original source of Rome’s wealth, the temple was also the repository for the State Treasury, or the Aerarium Populi Romani, which was located beneath the stairs under the high podium. It also contained the bronze tablets on which Roman law was inscribed.
The woolen bonds, which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue of Saturn within, were loosened on the festival day to symbolize the god’s liberation. On this festival day, after a sacrifice at the temple, the people held a public banquet attended by both slave and free persons. An image of the god was placed as if in attendance at this meal, or a lectisternium (reclining on a couch), a tradition which Livy says was introduced in 397 BCE. (Others date this to 399 BCE.) The practice was introduced as a specific emergency response to a natural crisis: extremes of temperature occurring in both summer and winter had given rise to a devastating plague that had proceeded to ravage the population. It was celebrated from December 17 to 23, ending on ending on the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.
Not only were public rites celebrated with all the splendour then available, but Livy goes on to describe the general tenor of the private celebration in the late 1st C BCE (around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ):
“They also celebrated the rites in their own homes. All through the city, it is said, doors stood wide open, all kinds of food were setout for universal consumption, all comers were welcomed, whether known or not, and men even exchanged kind and civil words with personal enemies; there was a truce to quarreling and legal action; even prisoners were released from their chains for those days, and they hesitated thereafter to imprison men whom the gods had befriended.”
This ritual meal was commonly shared by the worshippers, in contrast to normal sacrifice, which distinguished human from divine portions. In other words, in the Lectisternium the gods were not only present in spirit, but in form, and they shared in the ritual meal.
The question we have to ask is how did Saturnalia move from a feast of appeasement to reduce harm to the people, to the debauchery which most history books write about today? The powers that be tried over the years to limit the length and celebratory excesses of the season, whether they were civic or religious powers. I suppose they had no counselor rabbits to advise them of Murphy’s Law: “Very little work will get done in the holiday season, and what does manage to get done will most likely need redoing in the New Year.”
By the 1st CE, Pliny, the Roman historian, was holed up in his room during Saturnalia, while the rest of the family celebrated the feasts, hijinx, and tomfoolery. In the 4th CE, the Christian church decided Christ’s birthday should be celebrated in the winter near the solstice, instead of in the more likely time of spring. The first reference to December 25 as the Nativity of Jesus occurs in a section of the Chronography of AD 354 known as the Calendar of Philocalus, which, even by this late date, still identified December 17 as ludi Saturnalia. By this time, some of the traditions of Saturnalia had already transferred into the Christian era. These were the green decorations of holly, a plant sacred to Saturn, in people’s homes; the small gifts of affection for all comers; the feasts; and the welcoming of strangers with fruit treats and nuts. Upending social conventions for a while reminds us God has no favorites, unlike our stratified social structures of the past and present.
December 17 was recognized as the date of the Saturnalia as late as 448 CE, when the ecclesiastical calendar or laterculus (“list”) of Polemius Silvius noted it as feriae servorum (“festival of the slaves”), a festival now deprived of its pagan significance. By the eighth century CE, church authorities complained how even people in Rome were still celebrating the old pagan customs associated with the Saturnalia and other winter holidays. The Temple of Saturn was largely destroyed in the mid-fifteenth century, so all that remains today is six of its Ionic granite columns crowned with a frieze thought to date to approximately 30 BCE.
As we approach the solstice time and the season of the Lord’s birth, we give thanks along with the gospel writer of John 1:5—
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Along with all my bunny friends and family, I hope you all remember what my little daughter said about that “Luke guy, who had such a big part in the Christmas Eve service” the year she learned to read:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 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 1:78-79