The darkest time

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For those of us who sleep at night, the earth burst through its Winter Solstice and our planet's northward tilt oriented the sun to its lowest point along our horizon, and we awoke this morning to the first full day of winter.

We haven't seen much evidence of winter in our weather or snowfall...yet.

Our planet dances around the sun in the course of the year, and in this season, in this northern hemisphere, we are in the darkest time with just over nine hours of daylight from sunrise to sunset. The good news: after today, each day will grow a little longer, on a wobbly, uneven path.

In ancient times, monuments like Stonehenge and other purposely placed circular arrangements acted as both celestial calendars and places of worship in tracking the sun's passage. It was later discovered that it was in reality the passage of their Earth's orientation as it traveled around the sun. Combining ceremony and science, the circles were a visual cue to the endless cycle and an affirmation of hope that in this bleakest time of the year, a time of cloistering and rest, our planet continues to take us on a celestial ride toward the rebirth of spring, the warmth of summer, and the harvest of autumn.

Or so we can believe. We may have taken it for granted before, but we were sent inside just as spring was dawning and some haven't been outside to see everyone else even yet this year. The hibernation has been long and it's tiring to have dark, cloudy walls around our desire to do things, our wish for this to be over.

The solstice might even be humankind’s oldest holy day, intertwined with the rhythms of earth’s and our journey, from a thousand years and more before today’s great religions were born.

Christmas seasonal traditions have their origins in the pagan celebrations around the Winter Solstice, when light was at its dimmest but would once again begin to emerge even as winter settled in. In describing the birth of Jesus, the New Testament speaks of shepherds abiding their sheep, keeping watch over them in the fields at night, something that likely would suggest spring. Since the Bible offers no clear date, it’s not surprising that Christmas came to be observed at the time of deeply ingrained celebrations around the Winter Solstice, binding songs in carols, yule logs, the scent of freshly cut trees, holly, companionship and revels into Christmas traditions.

If Christmas is going to be quieter this year, it hearkens back to the earliest days of the U.S in which Puritans and other religious groups rejected the celebration of anything that might be anything close to a pagan ritual and December 25 went on like it was any other day. Even schools stayed upon until the mid-1800s, just about the time settlers were filling up the fields and woods of Iowa.

It was 1870 when Christmas Day was declared a national holiday, and from there, the external celebrations ramped up with St. Nicholas joining the fun, gifts and candy and carols and merriment.

As some of our ancestors shivered in their cabins, waiting for the wood stove to heat, the fire to whoof into flame, maybe it was that they could go no longer without the warmth, companionship and good spirit in this bleakest but quietly beautiful time of year.

Our newsroom wishes all of its readers the best this season can offer.

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