Greetings of the longest night! There’s a meme floating around the internet, a red and green globe with the caption, “axial tilt is the reason for the season.” It’s cute, and fairly accurate. Our contemporary celebrations (secular and religious) are connected by an Ariadne’s thread of history and myth back and back again some more into the deep-time, ancient common experience of the longest night, and the subsequent return of the sun.
Thinking on this, it occurred to me that this phenomenon has been part of Earth’s rhythm from the beginning. Although the angle of the tilt has varied over the eons, Earth itself has experienced seasons long before our species was around to call the cold time “winter,” and dance the sun back to the sky.
Before life itself, the ancient Earth convulsed rivers of magma, and breathed out oceans of steam. The moon circled the Earth. Winter and summer came and went. The dance of the seasons began.
In an ocean, in one hemisphere or the other, the first life emerged. Eventually, the sea was filled with scores of single-celled, long ago and far away distant cousins of ours. And the moon circled the Earth. Winter and summer came and went. The stars circled above in strange unrecognizable patterns, with no eyes to see them.
Eventually, some enterprising little thing figured out how to take the warmth and light of the sun and make a living from it. It was blue. It was green. It danced a new dance to the seasons rhythms, breathing out oxygen as it went on its merry way. The moon circled the Earth. The little thing noticed the passing of winter and summer, winter and summer, winter and summer…
The continents skittered here and there, hither and yon, north and south, taking along with them a thousand thousand emergent beings, all learning the lessons of light and darkness as they went. They learned of the coming of summer’s warmth and winter’s chill. They learned to survive. They learned to sense the changing seasons, and that the darkest night didn’t last forever.
In a cave, wrapped in furs, tending the fire, someone with eyes like yours, eyes like mine, stepped out, shivered and looked at the sky on a night like tonight and knew deep in her bones that the darkness had reached its limit. Light and life would return. She danced with those she loved, chanting loudly, calling the sun back. The moon circled the Earth, itself spinning skewed and tilted toward the sun, now away, now back again. Winter and summer came in their turn.
Into the cottage he brought the evergreen boughs. Snow piled high upon snow, but the symbol of life reminded him that spring would come. The long nights were for dreaming. It had a name now. Winter. Always and ever, it was followed by spring. And the moon circled the Earth as it leaned far from the sun, as far as it would go, and no further. The dance of the seasons went on and on.
So, here we are again, at the hinge of the year. Winter isn’t what it used to be. Another record high. Another freak storm. Drought here. Wildfires there. And the smart monkeys, the brainy-upright-walking-always-talking primate, homo sapiens sapiens, tries to figure it all out, and nervously starts to realize just who is responsible for the chaos. But whatever the weather, the longest night begins the journey back to the light. We know it down to the minute, that millisecond moment when the shift begins, and the darkness ebbs. We know an awful lot now. Do we know enough?
But whatever we know, whatever we do, whatever our fate, the dance of the seasons will go on. Back and forth the planet bounces. Winter and summer. Light and darkness. Light and darkness. It’s comforting, this annual rhythm. Trace the thread back in your imagination. Follow it to the beginning, then spin it out into the abyss of the future. Earth will keep dancing for a very long time to come.
I wish you deep dreams on this longest night.
Rebecca Hecking lights a candle to call back the sun in the northern hemisphere on the longest night. She writes and dreams from her home in northwest Pennsylvania, USA.