Solstice 2011

Dies Natalis Invicti Solis

December 22nd 2011

Every December, I write a “Solstice piece”, and the theme is the same; this is the turnabout point, from now on, the days are getting longer, and eventually it will be spring.

Of course, there’s another element that I tend not to dwell upon. And that is that the Solstice is also the first day of Winter. And it’s just going to stay winter for another 90 days or so.

In fact, in eastern Canada, among other places, old man winter blows right through the Solstice and keeps right on intensifying. The snowiest and coldest month is often February, not December. For folks who depend on nice weather for their comfort and ease—and that’s most of us—the worst is yet to come. It will be a while for the days to be noticeably longer, and in the far north, it may be weeks or even a month or two before the first brief glimmer of blue sky to the south reminds people that there’s still a sun down there somewhere.

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone. In the ten years that I’ve written these, I’ve never gotten an email telling me, “Thank you for reassuring me winter is over! Now where’s my bikini?” People know that Solstice is just the first step toward a long and sometimes difficult recovery.

All the Solstice really does is tell us that the recovery is possible, and will happen. It’s a promise, one that is kept by the laws of orbital mechanics every year.

I also don’t make much of the fact that on the same date, it’s the Summer Solstice in the southern hemisphere. I know it, of course, and I still remember my first dawn in Australia, watching the sun rise and then proceed to take off in the wrong direction, to the left rather than to the right. They drive funny down there, too.

One friend asked me why I didn’t write a Summer Solstice piece. After all, it was the first day of a long, glorious summer, of sweet mornings and breathless afternoons and warm caressing evenings. Wouldn’t that be a more optimistic theme?

The trouble is that the Summer Solstice is a turning point, too. The days start getting shorter. What’s my message supposed to be? “It’s all downhill from here”?

So I don’t mention the Summer Solstice much (“to the left”! Bah, humbug!) and there’s an unstated and usually unneeded caveat that the promise of spring requires a little patience.

Political and social seasons don’t have solstices and equinoctal balances. It’s very rare in political or cultural life where you can say “This is the turning point. The light will return, or it’s all downhill from here.” Most such are visible only long after the fact. You can see an event that is the political equivalent of the solstice, such as Obama getting elected or the Soviet Union collapsing, and tell yourself that it’s a turning point, that things will begin to get better, and instead, it just keeps getting darker and colder, and if there is a turning point, it passes unnoticed and unremarked.

Because of that, and the human need to hope, cultures and politics will scramble to address the psychological underpinning of the solstice. Any culture far enough from the equator to have actual seasons has some sort of solstice event, whether it’s Christmas or Yule or any of dozens of rituals.

Middle-age Europe, for example, had Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. In Great Britain and various parts of Europe, they used to have a traditional festival role that went with the Sun’s birthday: The Lord of Misrule. In Scotland the role was called the Abbot of Unreason, and in France Le Prince des Sots. For a day, someone totally unqualified and hilariously inept was placed on the throne—a peasant, a drunk, a fool. He got all the booze he could drink and all the women he could bang for the day. It was sort of like being a CEO in America. There were lots of wild parties, and everyone got good and drunk, and everything just sort of ground to a halt for the day. The marts were closed, the army got the day off, and lots of lasses got pregnant before the next day, when the rightful king or queen resumed rule.

It began in Rome with the feast of the Calends, or Saturnalia, and persisted in Europe through the middle ages. By the time of the Reformation, Anglican rulers disapproved of the custom and banned it, and Catholic rulers reinstated it. But after Mary, Queen of Scots, the English were plumb out of Catholic rulers, so the holiday slid into obscurity, eventually replaced with the more politically correct but quite similar Christmas. Oddly enough, one tiny remnant of the custom survives in present-day England in an unlikely form – the Christmas cracker. It’s not something you eat; it’s a device made from a strip of cardboard, a tiny bit of gunpowder, and crepe paper. Two people pull one apart, it makes a small bang, and you get an “indulgence” and a “crown” – the indulgence is a cheesy little gimcrack like a toy whistle or a little bow, and the “crown’ is made of crepe paper, a fools’ crown.

I sometimes wonder if the royal objections to the festival were based, not on religious or moral grounds, but on an uneasy awareness that here were people having a grand old time of it without a king or queen to make their lives worthwhile. Did they worry that people might decide, come December 22nd, that the drunken fool wasn’t any worse than the usual rule and might, in fact, be an improvement?

America went through eight years of a Lord of Misrule, and is suffering years of hangover as a result. The Bush years showed that even a country as strong and stable as America can’t go eight years with the leader replaced by a drunken fool and not suffer major damage as a consequence.

At least, not right away. We all thought that the election of 2008 would be a turning point toward the light, and like many such political solstices, it turned into a false dawn.

Or has it? Is it perhaps just the fact that the worst of winter generally comes well after the solstice, and because of the cold and wind, we fail to notice the days really are a bit longer?

As noted, political solstices are difficult to mark, and impossible to rely upon. “This will change the world!” is one of the most deprecated phrases in any human language, and the quiet whisper of change that goes unheeded is the one that will change the world.

Obama didn’t change the world, as much as we hoped he would.

But we did have a political solstice, and it came in the form of a young Arab named Mohamed Bouazizi who sold fruit in a small unknown town in Tunisia called Sidi Bouzid. An utterly unremarkable person in a nowhere town, and in a sane world we would never have heard of either.

Bouazizi, humiliated and bullied by petit authorities of the town, protested by setting himself afire. It happened in a place that took little notice of solstices, on December 17th 2010, just days before the solstice. It took him a hideous 17 days to die of his burns, and by then, the revolution had spread to various parts of Tunisia. It would be another few weeks before anyone in America even heard about it, when the President of Tunisia fled the country.

The revolution, fanned by the flames of a deceased street vendor, spread. To Egypt. To Syria. Throughout the middle east. To the United Kingdom. To America. And now, to Russia. In the UK, it was rage against the unthinking bigotry of the police. In America, it was disgust with the arrogant and inhuman greed of strutting corporate clowns who felt entitled to drain the national treasury and cheat and ruin Americans by the millions. In Russia, it was rage against Putin and the endless corruption of the corporate mafia.

I’m guessing that it will continue to grow. As with all such uprisings, it will bring light to some areas, and darkness to others. You can’t look at the people, or the issue, or the culture, and get an idea of how it will play out. It may be a solstice, but which solstice? Sometimes that isn’t evident until a equinoctal moment is reached, well after the fact.

All uprisings are viewed, by the uprisers, at least, as grand and Promethean things. Some are. America’s revolution led to the Constitution. The French had their revolution, and saw it disintegrate into a blood bath. Czechoslovakia had their Velvet Revolution in 1968, and it was crushed by the Soviets, who redoubled their oppression of that land. Nobody back then realized it was the first crack in the facade of Soviet strength, the first moment where the Soviet Union began its long fall.

It’s a Solstice, a turning point, and things may get worse before they get better. And eventually, things do get better. If that wasn’t true, than human history might well have ended at Hitler’s death camps. They will get better.

It’s just a matter of when, and how, and what other small, still events will shake the world.

Don’t lose hope. Never lose hope.

[Zeppnote: for North Americans, Solstice Day depends on what time zone you’re in. For folks in Eastern, Atlantic and Newfoundland times, it’s 12/22/11—for the rest of us, it’s 12/21/11. It falls at 0530 GMT on the 22nd, so Brits are advised to set their clocks so they don’t miss it. It’s quite a display, you know.]


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