Today marks Yule or Winter Solstice, the year’s shortest day and the longest night, here in the northern hemisphere. As the earth grows dormant and plants store nutrients deep within their roots for the winter; so we clean up the garden, store and preserve food for the winter, and prepare for spring planting. Traditions dating back to ancient times include bonfires, and eating and drinking in celebration. For a long moment of darkness as our planet tilts away from the sun, we await the eventual return of its warmth and light.
This year, 2020, which we can’t chase away fast enough, the solstice also brings a special astronomical event: in a rare planetary conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn will rendezvous in the night sky. For the first time in nearly eight centuries, these two planets will appear conjoined. Not since the time of Marco Polo, have we been able to witness such a phenomenon from earth. The fleeting union occurs for just a couple hours after sunset, to the west-southwest as the sky darkens. They should be visible to the naked eye, but using a telescope or binoculars will show them individually, glimmering through the twilight. As Jupiter twins with Saturn as a “double planet,” we watch the gods play in the winter sky.
Now we’re cooking with pumpkins, and due to a hotter year we even have winter tomatoes! In the garden, squirrels chitter and laugh as they run up and down large walnut and oak trees, storing their nuts. We hear the (new) caw of ravens, come to disrupt our neighborhood crows; and the songs of oak titmouse, white-crowned sparrow, finches and towhees.
Winter signs are everywhere: the air’s icy bite when I swim at the city’s outdoor pool, as my kicking foot leaves the water. I lost my father almost four decades ago to the day, my mother just eight short years; I still see their faces in the night’s cold stars.
Writing about this powerful, magical change of the seasons, British author Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day,” says it simply and beautifully:
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us—listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.