The Longest Night

The Longest Night December 18, 2014
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I have always loved the colour of the night sky in winter.  It almost never seems entirely black; instead, it blue with refracted gloaming, even at the dark of the moon, even at midnight.  And yet, the stars are never so clear as they are in the midst of winter, as Orion charges out from the horizon to chase Taurus with Canis Major barking at his heels.  The jewel in the Great Dog’s collar, Sirius, sparkles like a radiant prism diamond as it cycles through white, red, green and blue (though of course this is only atmospheric refraction) just over the Southern Horizon; Castor and Pollux wink out of the sky’s zenith; and the Pleiades sparkle like a celestial diamond ring.  Meanwhile, in the Northern Horizon the Dragon rears his head, and the Big and Little Bears point the way.

It’s dark for a long time here above the 49th Parallel at this time of year.  The sun sets at around 3:30 pm and it doesn’t rise again until almost 8:30 in the morning.  That’s seventeen hours worth of night.  I find it challenging to deal with.  But it gives you a long time to contemplate the stars and the celestial mysteries.  Maybe that long night is part of the reason why the stars are so clear; there’s so much less sunlight leaking into the sky by the time one considers the stars in winter.  Or maybe it’s because high-pressure fronts coming down from the Arctic Circle chase the clouds away and the sky opens up to reveal the vastness of the celestial firmament.

The Longest Night brings us into contact with a world that is normally hidden from the human experience.  Last night I was heading in from work at about 6 pm, and I heard that the owls I knew to be living in a ponderosa pine in the back forty were already awake and calling out to each other.  I’ve heard them before – sometimes I sleep out on a hammock in the yard on hot summer nights and I have awakened to their haunting cries – but never have I been aware of them being so loud, and so early.

Image courtesy of NASA.

The silence is another thing so rarely encountered, and so rarely appreciated, in our time.  How often have you been able to go somewhere that even cars on the highway are only a rare and distant whisper, when you can hear your feet crunching in the snow and the sound of your breath whispering in and out of your nose in misty plumes?  When the animals moving in the woods are not concealed in the yammering of humanity?  When even the wind has the courtesy to whisper as it brushes the evergreens, since there are no dried leaves for it to rattle and rustle in?  How often can we sit in that perfect silence, allowing all of our other senses to quest and awaken?

Rarely do we take the time to appreciate the beauty of Night, even at this time of year.  Instead, wearied by the seemingly endless dark, we celebrate the rebirth of the Sun and look to longer, brightening days.  But without dark, how would we ever see the beauty of the stars?  How would we ever know about the mysteries of the cosmos, of which we are merely a infinitesimal part?

I feel the Star Goddess very closely at the Solstice.  She drapes Her midnight and silver hair around us and cloaks us in its mystery and its beauty.  She waits; She quietly breathes and just IS.  I feel the wonder and the solemnity of the ancient power of solitude and yes, a little fear at the threshold of the miracle.  The Sun goes into the tomb and then is reborn; and in the meantime, we can grasp the Immensity that is only comprehensible when we gaze deep into the cosmos . . . and see ourselves.

But even in the vast darkness of the face of the deep, where celestial winds blow through the Void to whisper to those who can hear them, the candles that are the stars burn in the night; and each candle is a sun, a hearth-fire for an entire system and, we now know for certain, thousands of other worlds.  What others like us might also be gazing into that vast universe in the time of their Longest Nights, wondering, as we do, whether they are alone?

Happy solstice to you and yours; happy holidays, however you celebrate.

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