Today marks the winter solstice.
According to the almanac, winter will officially arrive hereabouts at 12:47 p.m. Not that there'll be much to see…not even from the vantage point of a high perch atop one of the big sycamore trees on the island across the river from the cottage. At least the redtail hawk I saw sitting in such a view-commanding seat didn't appear impressed.
Of course, if this were a bright morning about 5,000 years ago, and you were hunkered deep in that Ireland passage tomb we now call Newgrange, you'd probably have been nearly beside yourself with excitement the moment that single beam of solstice sunlight suddenly illuminated the floor of the structure's innermost recesses. What's more, the person huddled beside you, loudly cheering, singing, praying, or simply mumbling might well have been one of my distant kin—especially if he happened to be a particularly fine and handsome example of a warrior-priest.
Today, here on the riverbank, there was no shaft of sunlight poking dramatically through the blanket of clouds…no wild cries of glee from the neighbors. And I can't say I hold out much hope for a dance around a bonfire later on. Solstice magic is in rather short supply.
But the implications of this invisible astronomical milestone remain as valid as ever: from this point onward, for the next six months, light will be on the increase rather than the decline; gain instead of loss. While the brunt of the cold weather waits ahead, and winter as a season has just begun—still, it's all carrying us toward light and warmth and spring. Winter's passing solstice begins setting the stage for April's lovely pastel wildflowers which will spatter the hillsides and greening glades, the singing birds who've returned all decked out in their bright attire, and the wily smallmouth bass who'll feed hungrily in the sparkling riffles of my beloved river.
There's indeed a promise in the passing solstice, a message of things to come.
The old ones knew this. It gave them the faith to face what lay ahead, the courage and strength to endure the winter cold and somehow manage their doubtless dwindling supply of food. You can often hang on if you know things will get better. When survival is at stake, hope is not enough; a sign of some sort is necessary…and the solstice was—and is—that sign.