Date: December 24, 2009

Title: Dancing in the Dark: Deities, Celebrations, and the Bottom of the Year


Podcaster: Diane Duane


Description: There’s something about the end of the year that makes people a little crazy… maybe because the Winter Solstice and the dark days surrounding it have presented human beings with numerous problems over the millennia that people have been building calendars and trying to run their lives by them. Will the days get longer again by themselves, or do we need to give the Sun a helping hand? Should this be our god’s birthday, or would Spring be better? Is this a bad time to end the year, or a good one? And when it does end… where’s the party?

Bio: Diane Duane is a native New Yorker living in Ireland, and a descendant of the first Mayor of New York City. She’s been writing science fiction and fantasy novels, TV, computer games, comics and whatnot for twenty-five years, in her own universes and others; in that time she’s written for characters as disparate as Batman, Sigurd the Volsung, Jean-Luc Picard, and Scooby-Doo. A lifelong love of astronomy has affected all her work, especially her “Young Wizards” young-adult fantasy series. She’s happy to live in a place where even a nearsighted person can see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, celebrating Five Decades of Training Young Scientists through summer programs. Explore the hidden universe in radio at


Hi there. My name is Diane Duane: I’m a science fiction and fantasy writer, and I live in Ireland.

Out here in the country there’s a line you start hearing from the neighbors around the middle of November when you meet them in the village or at the pub: “Sure the nights are really drawing in now, aren’t they?” At our latitude, around 55 north, the shortening of the daylight hours as the Winter Solstice approaches can be surprisingly oppressive. At the Solstice the Sun won’t rise until twenty to nine in the morning, and sets again by a little after four.

The annoyance of the long dark nights and short chilly days is offset by the knowledge that after the Solstice, the days will start getting longer. A constant flow of images sent back from satellites and people living in space have imprinted on the vast majority of human beings the reality of the situation: the Earth is round, it goes around the Sun once every three hundred sixty-five days or so, and it has a tilt to its axis that creates the seasons of summer and winter. Everybody knows that it would take cosmic events of more than mega-disaster-movie proportions to disrupt that ancient rhythm.

But Ireland, like many other countries across the world, is home to various ancient structures like the famous Newgrange passage tomb – carefully constructed and engineered five thousand years ago to analyze the Sun’s movements and predict its expected positions far into the future. These beautifully designed and fabulously expensive scientific instruments, which modern archaeoastronomy is now helping us understand, are a reminder that our distant ancestors didn’t share our certainty that after winter there’d be another spring.

These weren’t stupid people by any means. But the early sparks of civilization were scattered far apart, and lacking the ease of communication and information sharing that we’ve taken for granted for centuries, they just didn’t have enough data to be sure. Being far more intimately connected to the land than most of us are now, those most ancient peoples were very clear that if the Sun didn’t return after the winter, all human life would end. So each early culture took its own precautions, both scientific and religious, to make sure that the world kept working as it should. They were determined to make sure they knew where the Sun ought to be at the Equinoxes and Solstices, especially the crucial Winter one. And the religious texts of the earliest writing civilizations make plain their determination that if the Sun needed mankind’s help at that dangerous time, it would get it.

Around the world one can still find a scattering of the very oldest traditions along these lines: ceremonies in which fires were kindled and kept burning all through the longest night to scare away the nameless things that lived in the darkness, and show the Sun the way back. People danced around those fires in the dark, shouting encouragement to the day’s fire from the night’s ones, often leaping over the flames for luck– theirs, or the Sun’s. Their sympathetic magic-based methods might have been primitive, but their sentiments were no less heartfelt for that.

Later, as the first civilizations grew more stable and complex, so did the rituals and traditions. People planet-wide started personifying the Sun into a god or goddess so that it would be easier to work with, and hymns and ceremonies were constructed to help the Sun Gods return – some of them inspiring works of art like the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun”. Later still, as expanding cultures bumped into each other and started exchanging knowledge, the accumulating data started suggesting that the Sun could be depended upon to keep coming back. This was almost certainly a huge relief to everybody. But the ancient cultural mainstreams don’t seem to have been relieved enough to stop the ancient ceremonies their ancestors had performed since time immemorial to help the Sun return. After all, some of them might have reasoned, you couldn’t be sure that the ceremonies hadn’t helped. At this late date, why rock the boat?…

With this basic conservatism in play, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that so many remnants of those old celebrations and commemorations are still with us, though in forms sometimes so worn down by the flow of Time as to be almost unrecognizable. Here and there a glimpse of the old year-end fear and joy shines through the shadows of the past, like a Christmas tree ornament buried way in by the trunk; and the science of astronomy is the hook that holds the ornament on the tree.

Probably the first use of practical astronomy was in giving local farmers a straightforward count of days and a set of clear seasonal signposts to help them know when to sow and when to reap, when to put the cattle out and when to bring them in. For that you need detailed astronomical observations to plot the agricultural data against: and then, so that the people who need the information can get their hands on it, you need a physical calendar that can be written on parchment or papyrus or graven on stone, and ideally carried in your head.

It sounds simple enough. But even today a calendar isn’t something you just throw together on a couple of quiet afternoons… and additionally, calendar making in ancient days wasn’t strictly a scientific business. Often it was the religious authorities who commissioned the calendars. Behind their desire to be sure about when to plant the barley, there was also concern about knowing exactly when to enact rituals to give the local Sun God a helping hand and make sure the seasons stayed in the groove. Where the crucial and dangerous Winter Solstice was involved, the tension between the religious and the scientific impulses occasionally shows through… even when cultures developed calendars that were primarily lunar. Hanukkah, for example, is tied to the new moon closest to the Solstice – theoretically the winter’s darkest night — in exactly the same way that Easter and Passover are tied to the full moon closest to the Spring Equinox.

Another effect the Solstice had was to affect the placement of some religious holidays in newly designed calendars. That dark bottom of the year in some cultures was considered so dangerous that the calendar-makers designated the four or five days on each side of the shortest day as “unlucky days” when contracts should not be signed or marriages celebrated. Often the New Year would be set for a month or so after the Solstice, when people felt the dangerous time was safely past. This was the case in Ireland, where the “old New Year” and the first day of Spring fall on February 2nd, the old feast of Imbolc – presided over by the Celtic virgin goddess Brigid of the Flames, mistress of fire, the Sun, and the sciences.

Now, the Winter Solstice can still have strange indirect effects on even modern religious holidays and the calendar dates on which they fall. For example, another reason that Brigid’s early February festival is the first day of the ancient Celtic year is that it marks the beginning of the lambing season. This has immediate resonances with Christian tradition, as the Gospel of Saint Luke states that the angels’ announcement of the birth of the Christ Child happened while the shepherds were spending the night out with their flocks. The only time shepherds bother to do this is when the sheep are lambing, and not even in a Mediterranean climate do sheep lamb in December. So what’s Christmas doing in December?

As it happens, the ancient Rome-based Church wanted to promote the Christmas holiday by associating it with an older one, ideally one around the Solstice, which in many ancient traditions was a time when gods of the Light celebrated their birthdays. The obvious candidate in the first century after Christ’s birth was the great Roman midwinter feast, the Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the scythe-bearing god of age and time, and also of sowers and reapers and the ending year. This holiday, so popular with the Romans that over time it grew from one day to seven, handled the unlucky days on either side of the Solstice in typically pragmatic Roman fashion: by closing down the country’s businesses and holding an empire-wide party until it was safe to open up shop again.

During Saturnalia, government offices and law courts were closed, business clothes were dumped for the week, and even wars were put on hold. In memory of a long-past “golden age” of peace and equality over which Saturn and the older gods were said to have presided, slaves were given the week off and were waited on at meals by their masters and mistresses. Friends exchanged gifts of money and food, candles were lit to celebrate the returning light, and houses were decorated with evergreen boughs to suggest that life would once again inevitably follow the light’s return. There was also a lot of visiting back and forth and a ton of partying and feasting until the holiday was done.

Over subsequent decades the early Church seems to have had second thoughts about connecting Christmas with this holiday, as the Saturnalia started becoming increasingly secularized, with ever more emphasis on the boozy feasting and partying and upending of the status quo. Eventually the Emperor Constantine, having decreed the Sun’s day as an official day of rest, felt it more appropriate to attach Christmas to December 25th – the date to which the Solstice had been relocated in Julius Caesar’s reformed calendar — and the birthday of the sun god Sol Invictus: the Unconquered Sun, eternally victorious over the winter dark. Despite continuing discussions about why it’s there, there Christmas has stayed, even through the calendar reforms that followed. (And it’s worth considering that without the Western calendar’s last few reforms, Christmas would now be falling sometime in May. It really doesn’t pay to get careless with calendars.)

Calendar management has come a long way since in its relationship with the great turning-points of the year. Nowadays we’re a lot more interested in whether we have to add a leap second on New Year’s Eve than in whether the Sun will rise again on December 22nd. Yet we can still reach back to touch the ancestors for whom that concern was vital. On Solstice dawns when the Sun defies all modern Irish expectations by actually being visible, you can stand inside the great Newgrange passage tomb and see the first sunlight shine down the hidden inner passage – by webcam. And as for less techie ways to do it, if you’ve turned on the Christmas tree lights this year, or lit a candle on the menorah, or eaten dumplings at Dong Zhi, or sat around the korsi at Shab e-Yalda and feasted with your family, then you’ve already engaged with the same energies as our most distant ancestors when they designed the first calendars and danced in the dark during the Solstice. Even with the Sun’s return a given, we can empathize with our foremothers’ and forefathers’ relief that the light was coming back, and that the world would keep on working for yet another year. And perhaps the cold dark Solstice time is a good one to consider that, though there’s always room for improvement, humans then and humans now are very much alike in all the ways that matter. Our connection to our ancient ancestors is the realization that though light itself is naturally of great value, it can mean far more than merely what it is.

In that spirit, to all of you who’re celebrating a dark-of-the-year holiday right now, I wish you peace, joy, and a continuing appreciation of the return of the Light.

For a collection of URLs to follow for more information about calendars and the Solstice, please go to this web address:

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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