Christmas, solstice share star power

Photo by Sam Camp/iStock/Getty Images

Whatever your view of Christmas, as biblical believer or secular skeptic, you can’t escape the star. Whether you celebrate the celestial event known for two millennia as the star of Bethlehem or the celestial event known for umpteen millennia as the winter solstice – or both – you’re subject to the power of the star.

Change on a grand but gradual scale is often impossible to detect. The grand transition from summer to winter is too subtle to sense from sunrise to sunrise. Since June 21 at 8:38 a.m. – the moment of summer solstice – as incrementally as a loose lug nut unraveling on a wheel bolt, daylight has become increasingly scarce. The wheel came off on November’s exit ramp to Standard Time, when our road trip suddenly required headlights. Tonight, December 21 at 8:48 p.m. PST, the northern hemisphere of planet Earth achieves its ultimate tilt away from the light: the winter solstice. In East Contra Costa County, the Sun rises at 7:19 and sets at 4:51, doling out a mere nine hours and 32 minutes of daylight compared to the 14 hours and 48 minutes of daylight at the summer solstice. Dec. 21 – the rock bottom of darkness.

We need no astronomer to tell us what happens next. We know, from direct experience and collective memory stored in DNA, how this drama plays out. Daylight, nearly defeated, takes a deep breath, struggles to its feet and begins its trudge back up the mountain toward summer’s long days and short nights. The light prevails.

The human race has been attuned to these rhythms from the beginning. Ancient people whose survival depended on the accurate calculation of seasons and prediction of weather looked to the sun, moon and stars for guidance on when to plant the seed and when to harvest the grain; when the monsoon would sweep in and when drought would grip the land.

In our time, insulated from most of nature’s hard knocks, we flip a switch and get light; turn a valve and get water. Our ability to predict the rhythms of the world is greater than ever – and so is our disconnect from those rhythms. We of the 21st century know the facts. But do we know the meaning?

Ancient people we label “primitive” knew exactly what the winter solstice meant – deliverance from death – and through ritual wove the great event into the fabric of their communal life. Their winter solstice celebrations dramatized the enduring question: will spring follow winter; will the most vital god in the pantheon, the Sun, return from exile and overcome darkness? The answer had always been yes, but was never guaranteed.

Winter solstice sunrise 2013, Round Valley summit.


“Solstice” comes from the Latin “Sun stands still.” In reality, nothing in our universe stands still. At our Bay Area latitude we’re burning rubber around Earth’s axis at 700 feet per second. As riders on the planet we’re clocking in at 19 miles per second in orbit around the Sun. And our Sun is dragging us on its scorching course around the galactic nucleus at 150 miles per second. When we claim that the Sun stands still, what do we mean?

If you’re a devotee of dawn, you’re likely aware that the Sun rises at a different place on the horizon in summer than in winter. The corona of dawn swells behind points of reference (a tree, a lamp post, the chimney of your neighbor’s house) to the southeast in winter and northeast in summer.

Every day of the year, the Sun breaks the horizon at a different position along a line from northeast to southeast – with two exceptions: the summer and winter solstices. On those days, the Sun rises exactly where it rose the day before – for several consecutive mornings. Solstice.

Illustration by Victor R. Erickson.

The concurrence of the star of Bethlehem and the star that marks the winter solstice provides more than charming imagery. It provides a reminder that humanity is united in a fundamental splendor: we’re all receptacles of light. Christians believe (in the words of St. John’s gospel) that at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, “the real light that enlightens everyone was even then coming into the world.” And Christians enact that belief in Holy Communion, internalizing that light in the form of Christ’s body and blood. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” is more than a figure of speech.

But if the light dwells in Christians through the Son, it dwells in us all through the Sun. Our Sun is a second-generation star, created from the debris of a first-generation star’s destruction. We were forged inside that star; it’s literally in our blood: hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, carbon to magnesium, magnesium to iron. And in that star’s death throe, those heavy elements were spewed into the interstellar medium and transformed by the alchemy of gravity into Sun and planet Earth. Every atom of hydrogen, helium, carbon, magnesium and iron in our bodies has its origin in starlight.

We can no more ignore the power of the star than a moth can ignore the flame. No wonder our hearts leap in response to the rebirth of nature in spring following winter, the daily resurrection of light from darkness. Buried deep within us is a light-shaped void that only the light can fill.

Celebrate the victory of light over darkness however you choose, but celebrate it. Whether your focus is the star in the sky over Bethlehem heralding the Christ child or your focus is our daystar on the horizon heralding the breaking of night’s dark siege, focus on it. Celebrate your journey back toward the light – and celebrate the light in you.