Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.
— Robert Graves, from “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”
Although the winter solstice is best known for being the shortest day of the year, it is also a time of slowing and of stillness. The very word solstice comes from the Latin words sol, sun, and sistere, meaning to come to a stop, or to stand still. The Sun has reached its most southerly points of rising and setting on the horizon. It is at its lowest in the sky, creating the shortest day and the longest night of the year. And as the Sun draws closer to this day, the amount by which its position of sunrise (or sunset) changes becomes less each day. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has a nice animation that shows very well how the sun’s position on the horizon at sunset or sunrise changes through the year. To the eye, it looks as though, for the few days around the solstice, the position of sunrise or sunset does not change, i.e., “stands still.” (Although of course the Sun itself still appears to move through the sky as usual!)
A similar pattern occurs at the summer solstice, time of the longest day, and the opposite pattern occurs at the spring and autumn equinoxes, when the sun rises due east, sets due west, and the positions of sunrise and sunset change most rapidly from day to day.
The winter solstice to me feels like a time of slowness and stillness, a time when it is difficult to get much done or to make much progress on any projects. It seems ironic to me then that, for so many people, this is one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year. The colder temperatures and longer nights mean that I spend more time indoors rather than outside. At this time of year, everything feels like it is drawing inwards. I walk outside, and sounds are muffled by the snow that crunches under my feet. There are no insects, there is no grass and no flowers, and the trees are silent and still. Everything comes in shades of black, white, and grey. Only the birds seem to be as active as they are in the summer.
The beginning of the new year is also drawing near, a date that matches fairly well with the time when the days begin to grow noticeably longer and the light to increase. I find myself thinking about what the past year has brought, and what plans and goals I have for next year. I wonder where I will be in a year’s time, and what will have changed by this time next year. What unexpected events will occur between then and now?
When the sun shines, the days are filled with brilliance, the sunlight reflecting off the whiteness of the snow and ice. It is a paradox of sorts, that in the time of greatest darkness, we celebrate light, that in the time when all in nature appears to be dead or dormant or simply absent, we celebrate birth.
The snowflakes swirl down and pile up among the trees. Below us in the field, two eagles are building their nest. The deer come and go. The quails leave lines of tracks in the snow. Indoors, lights shine and fires are lit, crackling, in the fireplace. I pile up books to read and dream of the year to come. Sometimes, I grow impatient with myself, but then I remember that, after all, this is the solstice, the time when the sun stands still.