Short Days, Long Nights

December 6, 2013

My parents moved when I was four. We moved from a house in a relatively flat area to one on the side of a hill. This hill was surrounded by other hills, so from my bedroom window I could look out and feel like I was on the edge of a bowl, looking down into it. The house also faced east, so my bedroom, at the back, faced west, so I could watch the sun go down in the afternoons. I don’t remember when exactly I first noticed that the days got shorter in winter. I do remember that it was supposed to be a set fact that the sun rose in the east and set in the west, but then I noticed that the sun actually moved a little to the south in winter. This made me incredibly suspicious of anything I was taught in school, even after I learned that I wasn’t the only one who noticed this movement but that it had the really cool name of the solar analemma. Oddly enough the spellcheck on the program I’m using to write this never learned about the analemma, and keeps trying to get me to write “anal Emma”, which makes me wonder if its programmer is originally from Uranus, but that’s another story.

Even though getting up when it’s still dark and coming home from work in the dark can be kind of depressing I actually look forward to the days getting shorter. It’s kind of cool. It’s a reminder that we can’t always count on the sun to give us warm days and green grass and give that obnoxious kid down the street sunburn. The sun can go away. It’s scary, but also thrilling. It’s like the shower scene in Psycho. It scares you the first time, but then when you watch it again, when you know it’s coming, you actually get even more jumpy. Your body starts to tighten like a wire that only snaps once the camera focuses on the black hole of the shower drain. And if you’re one of those who, like me, are a little bit tetched then you actually enjoy that feeling. It’s tempting to say that this thrill of tension and release was the real reason for solstice celebrations, but I think it’s more likely that for most prehistoric people the days growing shorter was not a pleasant experience, and they celebrated the lengthening of days because it would be the first real sign that winter wasn’t going to last forever. And also because it would mean that soon it would be possible to get the kids out of the house.

It always struck me as unfair that, for those of us kids in the northern hemisphere, Christmas, when we were supposed to be on our best behavior, was also the time of year when the weather was almost always guaranteed to keep us cooped up in the house until we were bouncing off the walls. Kids in Australia have it easy. Christmas comes in the middle of summer. Although maybe prehistoric people were never truly scared of the sun disappearing entirely, even in the farthest latitudes where, in the heart of winter, the sun barely comes up above the horizon before it disappears again. If current anthropological theories are correct the first homo sapiens emerged in Africa near the equator where the shortening and lengthening of days isn’t that pronounced. They only gradually moved north, and would, presumably, have had time to adjust to the varying seasons. Like my parents they probably also would have moved in the summer, possibly following prey or jobs with better benefits. And I wonder if we humans, like other animals, simply have an innate understanding that the shortening days aren’t the end of the world. That doesn’t make the solstice any less of a happy event, of course. And the idea that the days could get shorter and shorter and that winter would last forever is an ancient fear. Even the Vikings, who weren’t afraid of very much, have tales of prolonged winters when the sun stops coming out and the world begins to die. They’re usually caused by something done by Loki, the smallest of the gods, who was the trickster, so these stories reflect the only two things the Vikings were truly afraid of: the darkness of winter and that the shrimpy little guy they took turns beating up would one day get his revenge. Maybe by writing spellcheck programs.

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