Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

A Circle of Light

This is part 2 of a multi-part post on celebrating the middle of winter. [part 1] [part 3]


Last weekend, I and a few friends traveled to New York to attend a winter solstice celebration. Ray Arnold, who ran the event, did a brief writeup, but I figure I'd put forward (1) my perspective and (2) my thoughts on the event.

What actually happened? Well, it looked a lot like a church service -- some people told some stories and we sang lots of songs together. But the story that pulled us together wasn't "Once upon a time, a virgin gave birth to the son of God in a manger."; ours went something like this: (I'm paraphrasing from Ray's masterful telling at the event itself; alternatively, you can read some of his own words)

Once upon a time, winter was death. The world got cold and harsh, and if your tribe didn't have gigantic stores of food, you starved and died. And no one knew why it was, and no one could figure out when it would come.

So people, hoping against hope that there was some human-like person in control of the weather who was capable of pity, threw a party in the dead of winter. And, as it happens, when you throw a party in the middle of winter, spring comes back several months later. (As it happens, not throwing a party works just as well, but no one would dare risk that ...)

The problem was, no matter how many parties you threw, you couldn't stop winter from coming in the first place. We tried, and nothing worked. People died.

But -- someone noticed, after countless years -- the gods' wrath was startlingly regular. And so maybe, we could predict when cold death was going to come, and be ready for it. "I have a plan;" he said to his tribe, "we will put sticks in the ground and measure their shadows, and use geometry to predict the will of the gods!"

And he was killed for his heresy. It was fortunate that the gods had not heard his folly, lest they became enraged and took the sun away forever.

But eventually, someone posed the plan, and some other someones didn't kill her for challenging the old order with new ideas, and they put up posts to track the seasons. And when the posts rotted and fell, they dug up 800 tons of rock and rolled it on logs for 25 miles -- then dug up another 300, and carried it 150 -- and raised them in the shape of a gigantic calendar.

And we had the first answer to our first astronomy question.

The songs we sang weren't "Round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace" -- they were an ecclectic medley:

  • I hear babies cry, I watch them grow; they'll learn much more than I'll never know, and I think to myself what a wonderful world. (Louis Armstrong)
  • Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is delightful. And since we've got no place to go, let it snow! (version, Frank Sinatra)
  • If your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming, or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changing. (Bob Dylan)
  • Sun, sailing away -- I don’t know where; I don’t know why. Sky's darkening grey, and I’m tired of saying goodbye… (Bitter Wind Blown, Ray Arnold)
  • And we who listen to the stars -- or walk the dusty grade, or break the very atoms down to see how they are made, or study cells, or living things -- seek truth with open hand; the profoundest act of worship is to try to understand. (The Words of God, Cat Faber)

And when the lights had gradually dimmed, and the room was lit only by a few flickering electric candles:

  • Tomorrow can be brighter than today although the night's still cold, and the stars still seem so very far away... But courage, hope, and reason burn in every mind, each lesson learned -- we'll rise up to the stars and say, "Make tomorrow brighter than today!" (Brighter Than Today, Ray Arnold, of course)