THE RETURN OF THE SUN
Whatever made the universe knew its geometry. It knew that if it tilted the earth’s axis 23.5 degrees from the perpendicular of the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, there would be seasons on that tilted planet, a blessing whose worth it reckoned would be beyond calculation.
In the northern climes, at this time of the year of the earth’s orbit, all life on earth, whether or not it has knowledge of geometry, rejoices in the return of the sun and the start—but also the beginning of the end—of winter. For all life instinctively, if not consciously, is aware that without the sun, not even shriven Hope would know salvation.
In cities and suburbs where lights hold back darkness and obscure the heavens and where thermostats activate central heating when temperature drops below a degree that maintains cozy comfort, the sun is taken for granted and is given little notice. That the sun is the source of life for everything, that it grows the food for all life, warms the earth, gives inspiration by its dawn and twilights and its rising and settings to the eyes and souls of peasants and patricians, the dumb and the smart, the illiterate and the artist—is little noticed by cosmopolites relative to how the sun was noted by primitive peoples.
One can imagine how it was once man had gained consciousness of a past, present and future and yet knew nothing of the heavens and their workings. One can imagine that in the north, he was getting uneasy by the end of October, for he noticed that day after day the sun was with him a shorter time and its rays when it was with him were not so warming. Suppose, he worried, its presence continues slowly to decrease and its warmth to attenuate. Suppose sometime it sets and never appears in the east again. Such a thought would have put anyone in a panic and a frantic search for a remedy and a salvation.
One would imagine that there would be much to do in the way of sacrifices, rituals, prayers, and promises officiated and offered by the elders and seers designed to mollify and propitiate the power behind the scene so that it would change the course of the sun and bring back its light and heat and the full glory of its dawns and twilights. Then the always hopeful, in spite of the bleakness of the leafless forest, of a dearth of life, of a coffin of ice, would deck whatever abode they had with green and red and spread upon the tables some of their surplus as they waited for the outcome of their appeasements of their gods.
And one can imagine that on or about four days after what one today knows as the winter solstice, a chilled citizen of that northern clime would by some crude clock discover and report to the watchful that the sun had not only not retreated farther to the south but in fact inched perceptibly to the north. Such a report would have indicated that the gods had heard their prayers and had decided to return the sun to thaw their land and to assure them of the light of life and of its comfort and warmth and would have thereby initiated within the community a celebration of the event in which goodwill, brotherhood, gladness, cheer, and charity reigned during a festival of feasts.
I have seen scenes in history books of serfs flailing grain in the 15th century, of serfs cultivating a field with a harrow in the 13th century, of laborer generations ago scything hay, cradling wheat, shocking wheat and hay, just as I did under the mentorship of my grandfather on a farm in Summers County in the Twenties and Thirties. And I have known the sincere and joyous embrace of the winter solstice with its promise that the pinch and chill, the snow and ice, the mud and muck of winter were on the way out and that spring was on the way in.
I remember the depth of winter particularly when dinnertime came. The meal was served in the kitchen, the only room with heat except the living room where the fireplace with backlog and forelog and logs in between radiated heat and light and attracted after supper outstretched palms and chilled backsides of everyone in residence. The kitchen was lighted by a kerosene lamp that gave not much more illumination than a bottle of lightning bugs. But ‘twas enough to reveal the dishes of the meat, vegetables, fruits and grains harvested and preserved to sustain the family until spring. From a hilltop one viewing the farm house could detect only that faint light from fireplace and lamp, a speck of lame light in a vast ocean of darkness. Like all life, we hunkered down, drew close to the fireplace, and awaited the drama and the eventual demise of winter and reprise of spring.
I never read of the newborn Jesus having to spend his first night in a manger that I do not remember those dark evenings when I went to the barn with lantern to feed the stock that were waiting patiently for hay and corn. I would climb to the loft and fork down hay and open the grain box, select a number of ears of corn and distribute the hay to the cows and fill the horses’ mangers with corn. The box with the corn in it was the sort of box that Mary’s baby was laid for the night.
It was politically wise for the church fathers to select the winter solstice as the birthdate of Christ, just as it was politically wise and necessary for the bishops at Nicaea to vote to accept the belief that Jesus was God; for without that divinity attributed to him, Christianity would probably have long since been a footnote of history.
Christ’s birthday is occasion enough for celebration but even more basic is the return of the sun—for without the sun all life would freeze and resolve itself into mere ice.