December 25, 2012

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

Living as I do on shady lane, my house backed up against a slope to the south which occludes the sunlight from about mid-November until February 10 of each year, I tend to celebrate this time of year as the ancient Mayans and aboriginals in the British Isles (with their Stonehenge lens for the solstice) must have done:  As a celebration of the return of light.  Always a nice feeling to know that each day now becomes longer.  It's no accident that the two biggest holidays in Western civilization, Christmas and Easter (or Passover) happen on astronomical clocks, one celebrating the ascent of the sun in the southern sky, and the second the return of the Earth's fertility.

Since these festivals were already in place, religious priests commandeered the pagan observances for their own use in promoting mythology.  That's really too bad.  I've always thought it one of the marvels of history that ancient man (with no Tweeting distractions or sitcoms to watch) could figure out precisely, so that observatories could be built as at Chichen Itza, the comings and goings of the solar cycle, the phases of the moon, and many other astronomical phenomena.  Simply by watching and then figuring out how to measure.  It bespeaks an attitude of great patience and humility combined with ingenuity.

We've lost touch with that kind of folk wisdom, and substituted instead an utterly useless "mastery" of a preposterous mythology (the Christ story) which, from beginning to end, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Since many Americans have difficulty finding the United States on a map of the globe, I shudder to think what would happen if you asked them to describe with any particularity what the winter solstice is.  The virgin birth - this, they can tell you about.  I've sometimes wondered whether this is the reason that Americans have such trouble thinking clearly about sexual matters; being a "Christian" nation, we became inculcated with notions about sexual purity having something to do with morality, and once this dumb idea became lodged in the unconscious it was impossible to extirpate it.  Really, morality is concerned with assault and theft: all moral transgressions flow naturally from these two "sins."

In this sense, we've ceded a lot of ground to ancient cultures, who were more naturally attuned to the world they lived in.  So think of it this way: the Earth is tilted on its polar axis at an angle of 23.5 degrees, and it transits around the Sun in an enormous ellipse.  Maintaining this tilted attitude, sometimes the northern hemisphere tilts "toward" the sun, and sometimes it tilts away.  At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the angle of sunlight is directly on the equator of the Earth.  If the Earth's ellipse were the track at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day (a race of 10 furlongs), then we are on the backstretch now at the 5-furlong mark (a furlong = 220 yards, so that the Kentucky Derby is 1-1/4 miles long, or about two kilometers).

Heading for the finish line at the Summer Solstice in the latter part of June.  Should be a rousing finish as the winter of our discontent is again made glorious summer.