There is so much that I cannot understand about winter solstice because of who I am and what I have as a white American in the 20th and 21st century. Throughout human history, winter was a season where death came to families from cold, hunger, accident, or contagion. Cultures in the northern hemisphere developed customs to prepare, and they celebrate and hope to survive the harsh season. In the past week, Americans celebrated some of those winter holidays.
Solstice, in liberal Cambridge, MA
“Everyone celebrates the returning of daylight after winter solstice.” That’s what Ranger Tim said during a Solstice walk around Fresh Pond Cambridge. Well, not everyone. It seems like this noticing and paying attention to the shortening and lengthening of days is a northern hemisphere cultural thing. Ranger Tim told great stories from northern Europe and North American, and Chinese culture.
Almost everyone within so-called “western civilization” has some tradition of folklore and celebration around the shortest days of the year. The Greeks and Romans were aware that the sun traveled from east to west without going overhead at noon, lower and lower in autumn. Then, on the day of its lowest course east west, it started to climb again the next day. The word solstice comes from Latin sōlstitium. Sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
Those empires blended folklore throughout Europe, so that there are trolls, and bearded men, and heavy eating and drinking, and good-natured threats to naughty children, and evergreen-loving traditions that are familiar to Christian Americans as “Christmas-like”, with or without Jesus.
Ranger Tim also told about American Native cultures who gathered at solstice. They had sharing traditions that went along with the coming of the cold time. They lived more communally during the cold times, for survival.
Chinese culture (and other countries in their cultural sphere) celebrate the shortest day of the year, too, with Dongzhi Festivals. They worship and honor their ancestors, eat, drink, and prepare meats for the New Year. As with other people who live in a temperate climate, survival depends on preparing for winter, and hoping for spring to arrive on time. The Chinese have this traditional folk song:
‘During the first and second nine days, it’s too cold to put your hands in the air;
During the third and fourth nine days, you can walk on ice;
During the fifth and sixth nine days, willows on the banks start to sprout;
During the seventh nine days ice will dissolve;
During the eighth nine days, wild geese fly back north;
During the last nine days, farmers’ oxen start to work in the fields.’
Preparing for winter, in modern times
Life is less precarious now during the winter. Before technologies like central heat, electric refrigeration, trains, trucks, and airplanes were invented, feeding oneself in the winter took months of preparation. The luxury of being warm and well fed is not universal, even in an affluent country like the United States. Please be generous, as the winter comes upon us.
For the most part, modern people have central heating in their homes. This is a recent phenomenon. It is not guaranteed to everyone. The cost of heating fuel is still dear to working poor and unemployed people. Some homes still lack central heating.
Preparing for winter includes figuring out how to pay the gas bill for some of our neighbors. Then there are the growing number of people who are homeless due to economic hardship or natural disaster. Winter is the cruelest season for them.
Before electric refrigeration, food could not easily be shipped or stored. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not available during the winter. Food could become scarce if winter lingered and spring planting started late. Modern times bring us foods from warmer climes, transported to a local supermarket. For those who can pay for food, there is food.
Inflation is harming those who are living on the edge of poverty. For many Americans, the holidays include foods high in fat and sugar. But, when the Christmas bills are all paid, do your neighbors have enough to provide healthy food through the cold months?
I am especially thinking about the people whose homes were literally blown away this month. Are they warm and well fed? What will the winter bring for them? What of the people who suffered disasters this year? Think of the fire, flood, hurricane and wind stories that have passed from the “news cycle” and have been forgotten.
Poor people within our midst
We live in an affluent area. Not everyone you know can spend money on the things you spend money on. Please, in 2022, pay attention and do not contribute to compounding poverty with shame. Many of us are hiding stresses and feeling pain you can’t see unless you look or ask.
Happy New Year, 2022