A Light Look at a Dark Day
Twice a year we arrive at a solstice. It’s an astronomical term, which is not to mean that it’s an extraordinarily big word. It’s pretty average-sized as far as words go, but I think it has extraordinary meaning.
(1) Either of the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator: about June 21, when the sun reaches its northernmost point on the celestial sphere, or about December 21, when it reaches its southernmost point.
(2) A furthest or culminating point; a turning point.
Solstice springs from compound roots, the most apparent being sol, or sun. The -stice part of solstice comes from a root meaning “to make stand still.”
North of the equator we’ve been having just a bit less sunlight time every day since last June. Reaching the solstice, our days now start becoming gradually longer over the next six months, until we again reach the longest day, the summer solstice, in June. The days stop growing, then begin to shrink again; the cycle repeats.
At each solstice, the days stop getting longer or shorter, and reverse. The sun seems to stand still for an instant, and then the daily duration of sunlight slowly changes. The shift is only a few minutes per day, and it can take weeks to really notice much of a difference. But solstice perfectly defines the culminating phenomenon. It’s the moment the sun appears to stand still.
We all have our own solstices too, though probably not twice a year at perfectly regular intervals. These are times of change, when something that was, is no longer. Milestone events are solstices. What was before—high school student, for example—ends, and graduate begins. The pregnancy is over; you’re a parent. Like a swinging pendulum, motion in one direction ceases just before going in another. What was going on concludes, and now it’s something else. Solstice. The actual point of shift may be obvious—you’re a mom now!—or subtle: “How did I get this old?”
Every solstice, whether summer’s or winter’s start or personal turning point, may remind us of life’s cyclical rhythms. From the pulse of our hearts to our sun’s speeding around the Milky Way’s center, from subatomic particles to systems of galaxies, you and I are part of it all. Maybe all too often our oh-so-important personal lives distract us from this grandeur, but then along comes a solstice, our sun stands still for an instant, and we remember.
—John Clinton Gray
December 20, 2012