Humanity’s Celebration of Renewal: the “Sun Stands Still” and We Party

As part of my ongoing quest to defamiliarize the everyday, I would like to present a short Christmas “story”.

This is a special little post to remind us of the historical depth of social innovation, or put another way, of our social inventiveness.

I believe that social innovation is older than we think. In fact, it’s ancient, and we have about 12,017 years of global human history (if not more) of humans coming up with new social practices to deal with all manner of problems and opportunities.

To wit, if you haven’t seen this video yet, it’s worth checking out. It will defamiliarize the calendar for you:

But I digress (just a bit).

To the Christmas “story”!

As we’ve experienced in the northern hemisphere, since June, the sun’s arc across the sky has been steadily dropping lower and becoming shorter. The reverse has been happening in the southern hemisphere. On December 22nd, the sun reached its lowest possible arc (as far as we northern moderns are concerned).

In fact, the sun gets so low that in the few days surrounding the solstice it appears to rise and set in the same place. This is why etymologically, the origin of the word solstice comes from Latin phrasing, meaning “sun stands still” or “sun stand.”

By Mark Grant - Own work, CC BY 2.5,
By Mark Grant – Own work, CC BY 2.5

For our ancestors, either using the naked eye, or ancient astronomical instruments (like the one pictured above at Stonehenge) the solstice would go on for more than a day. This is why the festival of Saturnalia, for instance, would go on for about a week during winter solstice.

While we don’t know with absolute certainty the origin of the diverse and myriad winter solstice celebrations around the globe (in some cases, like the Saturnalia, our ancestors celebrated hard), we can surmise their importance:

People were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Feast before famine. Empty your stores to show your appreciation for the renewal of the year. Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.

While we don’t know for sure, we can imagine that these celebrations had their origin in a shared anxiety. There must have been some uncertainty as to whether or not our days were going to continue to shorten, and for how long. An ancient fear, perhaps, that the sun would continue to fall, never to return unless we humans intervened with “anxious vigil or antic celebration.”

How we dealt with this anxiety was through the celebration. Our ancestors’ social inventiveness lay in their ability to come together and have a good party.

Today, we know that every year the sun will come back (unless the earth is knocked off of it’s current axial tilt or orbit!). But the celebration remains.

For our modern capitalist version, we’ve intensified the “feast” and extended it well-beyond the agricultural ambit. We give all sorts of gifts, spending our money and supposedly stimulating the economy through our intensified exchange. This is the economic inventiveness that has sprung up around the winter solstice.

But instead of the fever pitch of shopping, what better time to really show your support for the sun and all that it does for our lowly little planet, than by having your own little Saturnalia? Let us re-invent our traditions, come together, and have a good time!

Happy Holidays!


PS. I was first exposed to some of the ancient astronomical origins of Christmas in a fascinating “Physics for Non-Physics Students” class that I took in university many years ago–taught by Arif Babul.

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