random observations on light, life and other ephemera

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This time of year is filled with the lights of celebration: Christmas trees and decorated houses, the Hanukkah menorah, candles for Kwanzaa and Advent, New Year’s fireworks. Some of these are purely decorative, while others have long been imbued with deep spiritual and allegorical meanings. Hanukkah is celebrated to honor a miracle in which God kept a flame burning long after its fuel should have been consumed, so the menorah recalls a flame with a flame. In Christianity, the birth of Jesus, “the Light of the world” (John 8:12), offers a more symbolic example. The literal desire for light at the time of the winter solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere) provides a natural opening for the spiritual desire for the light of God during the coldest and darkest times of the year, surely one of the reasons Christmas was established to occur on December 25, despite clues that Jesus was actually born in the springtime.

Other religious and cultural festivals, such as Diwali, also celebrate light as the counterpoint to darkness, representing the eternal opposition of good and evil. To this day, we find it natural to associate light with goodness, purity, safety and even knowledge (e.g. “brilliant plan”, light bulb = great idea, etc.), and darkness with evil, danger, fear and the unknown, perhaps ingrained from the days when a fire kept us warm, cooked our food and kept the dangerous animals away. When Prometheus stole fire from Mt. Olympus, he was taking something that was the very property of the gods and shared it with the lowly humans. The fact that Zeus was enraged at this and Prometheus was tortured for all eternity attests to the power and significance of the control of light, and its psychological benefits to those who control it.

So, it is reasonable to expect that the cultural interpretations of light are straightforward, except when they are not: in several significant instances, light represents evil. Taking a step past the concept of the Fires of Hell, Satan is famously referenced as “the Morning Star”, and “Lucifer” (light-bearer) on several occasions in the Bible and in literature.  From the Cold War through to the present day, fear of nuclear bombs and radioactive fallout has manifested itself in a healthy distrust of bright flashes and glowing objects.  Additionally, bright lights at night are associated with UFOs and the implicit fears of alien abduction. And for some people, there are few places as terrifying as under the bright light of the dentist’s chair…

Cultural constructs, religious beliefs, time of year and other factors all conspire to influence how we interpret and assign significance to instances of light. For whatever holidays you celebrate, here’s wishing that the lights of December illuminate us all, inside and out.

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late December, last year

Today (18:30 EST) Tomorrow Dec 22 (00:30 EST) is the winter solstice, marking the first day of winter and the shortest day (fewest minutes of daylight) in the Northern Hemisphere. At this moment the sun appears directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Capricorn (~23°S latitude), due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis. Starting tomorrow, the sun will appear slightly higher in the sky over the Northern Hemisphere each day, culminating in its maximum on or about June 21, the summer solstice, when the process reverses again.

For me, and undoubtedly many others, the lengthening of days is a welcome change which can’t happen soon enough. I find myself depressed every winter, and if it wasn’t for Christmas & New Year’s my seasonal slump would have started a while ago. So, as days get colder and there are fewer events to look forward to (sorry, MLK/groundhog/St. Patrick) I sort of wish I could just hibernate until late March, when I can focus on planting my garden again. Maybe that’s a sign I need a winter home somewhere warm?  Hmm…

Anyway, this time of year people are quite often confused to learn that while the number of minutes of daylight increases, the sun will not start to rise earlier each day for us in NYC until January 9. Another quirk is that our earliest sunset (16:28) occurred around December 7, but today’s will already occur 3 minutes later. This is caused by a combination of three factors: the Earth’s tilt, the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun and the fact that we have standardized clock time into zones, and so don’t use the exact local solar time for our clocks. (Unless you happen to live directly on a time zone meridian.) A fantastic explanation of these factors can be found at http://www.analemma.com

But the point of all this is in the meaning of this moment: except for the weather, from here, there’s nowhere to go but up.