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The Upside Down Solstice

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Today there are flurries being blown about in the wind as the temperature, for one of the few days this month, has dipped into the 20s. I think of the man I heard talking to the waitress at the diner a few weeks ago. "I want a blizzard!" he said, and she nodded along in agreement. There was mom of the newborn who posted on Facebook, "It used to snow in December here!" and the boy who bought new skis in October and has been waiting, with growing impatience, for something other than cold rain to fall. Finally, today, it is snow that is falling and, for a moment, the world is as it should be; it is December and the skies of Michigan are filled with the splendid wintery whiteness. Still, no one is talking about a white Christmas, the ground is too warm and the temperature is rising, it will probably all melt off in the next couple of days.

As historians point out, the actual birthday of Jesus was probably in the spring or early summer. The reason Christmas is held at this time of year is because there was a handy holiday already here, one of the most important of the year, known in the north as the Yule celebration. After a long season when the night's darkness had been creeping into the morning and evening hours, making the world a black, bleak and cold place, a day finally arrived when the naked eye could once again discern the days growing longer. After months and months, things were literally looking brighter. This was the Yule.

You can almost feel their enormous relief. In the era before science and reason, when only superstition reigned, it must have been incredibly reassuring to know that the world would not be plunged into eternal blackness and ice. The warmth would come again, the snow would melt, the ground would soften, a harvest could be reaped. The hungry wolves that lurked in the shadows would wander back into wilderness. Daylight was our greatest protector, chasing the demons away. This is why this holiday was also called "the celebration of the unconquerable sun."

But today it is not the sun, but rather the overcast skies and the snow that brings relief. It reassures our conservative nature that, if only for a moment, the patterns that have ruled the earth remain unchanged. Sadly, we also know this is only a Christmas wish.

On the other side of the year, the summer solstice, which was once a symbol of joyful warmth and bounty, is now the time when temperature records are broken, inching their way up annually as heat waves threaten the lives of the weak, poor and un-air-conditioned. Crops are ruined by crippling drought and wildfires scorch entire mountain ranges. Rivers dry up as the news reports it all, telling us the wet will get wetter and the dry dryer. We watch and wait, changing little to nothing in our own lives, paralyzed by our polemics, ignoring our power to change.

The earth moves on, revealing its judgment of our failures in its own colossal way. The reassurance of predictable cycles vanish and our greatest fears are turned upside down and inside out. For on this snowy day we find our solace in the cold and the darkness of winter, knowing that our nightmares will return with the light.