The ‘Sober’ Truth about the Solstice

The English word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin ‘solstitium’, meaning the ‘Sun standing still’. Around the 20th/21st December, the Sun slumps down to lie at its lowest point above the horizon. It needs a few days to ‘chill out’ before beginning, so slowly at first, to clamber its long way back to higher things, with growingly brighter and glowingly warmer days. But fear not, it’ll get there, come what may.

Why does it insist on keeping on doing this ‘down and up’ stuff? Maybe it thinks that’s less boring, despite the effort involved, than staying put in the same place and never moving from it. It’s perhaps like a never-ending holiday journey, with a few days for a short break between the backwards and forwards trips (including waiting for its luggage to arrive on a reluctant-to-move ramp). After all, different things please different people.

But no, we’ve got this all wrong. It’s not about the Sun, but about our topsy-turvy Earth, which no longer stands upright, but leans at a hazardous angle of no less than 23.5 degrees from the perpendicular. It seems like it’s had several bucketfuls too many in some 24/7 ‘celestial saloon’. The truth is, however, that it’s more like the permanently debilitating outcome of a bar room brawl. The Earth was hit, not for 6, but for 23.5, and it’s still reeling around.

Scientists reckon that a Mars-size planet, for some reason best known to itself, bashed into planet Earth, and left it tilted at an angle of 60 to 80 degrees, and spinning around ten times faster than it does today. If that was still happening, we’d all be ten times older than we are. The good news is that our dear old Moon took pity on us, and helped to slow things down, ‘slow’ being the operative word since it took 4 billion years, but here we are as we are today, and I’m 77 not 777. 

So let’s celebrate the cycle of the seasons – it could have been a whole lot worse! Darkness and cold help us to appreciate brightness and warmth all the more. Some of us actually delight in waking up to discover that “in the bleak midwinter, snow had fallen, snow on snow”. The rest of us just enjoy a satisfyingly, pardonably convenient excuse to have a twelve-day-long party, and why not? 

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