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The Shortest Day

Author John Cech
Air Date 12/20/2006

The Shortest Day Transcript

The Winter Solstice occurs later this week. It’s the shortest day of the year, and it takes place during what are called the Halcyon days, the week before and after the Solstice. These days are named after a bird, a kind of Kingfisher, that was said to have the ability to calm the stormy seas so that it could build its nest on the smooth water. The Solstice itself is a time of ancient significance, as Wendy Pfeffer explains in her book for children, The Shortest Day.

In her poetic book, Pfeffer tells the story of this moment in time, when the northern part of the earth tilts furthest from the sun. The word, “solstice,” itself comes from the Latin words for “sun” and “stop,” sol- sistere–literally, the time when the sun stops. Not only is the solstice an astronomical phenomenon, but also a mythical one. The shortest day led to rituals around the world that were meant to encourage the return of the sun, and with it light, warmth, growth, crops, and ultimately life itself.

This return was often marked by the appearance (and the celebrated, annual rebirths) of pagan deities in their baby forms–gods like Osiris, Apollo, and Dionysus. The ancient Chinese measured the length of the sun’s shadow to determine this day; the Mayans and Aztecs built structure –part temple, part astrological observatory, that were keyed to the sun at this and other times in the calendar year. The Romans commemorated the Solstice with their holiday called the Saturnalia. All schools were closed, soldiers were given leaves, and, during the festival, one was to make merry and give gifts as tokens of friendship, and to promote good fortune. Roman homes were decorated with evergreen boughs and wreaths, and with mistletoe, symbolic of an enduring life force and the return of vegetation in the spring. The Wampanoags of New England held a solstice dance in which each dancer in the circle gave the other the gift of forgiveness, so that old angers would not be carried forward into the new year.

A thousand years ago, Wendy Pfeffer reports, druids in England, “decorated oak trees with golden apples and candles to represent harvest and light.” Sweden celebrates the feast of St. Lucia with songs and gifts of food to family and friends. On this day, Swedish girls wore diadems made from candles and evergreens and became, for their society, the symbolic emissaries of light in a darkened world. From the frozen edges of prehistory and distant, mythic time to our own present, we are connected by a universal need for warmth and light. And like our ancient ancestors, we are forever in search of that perfect moment, even if it’s only an instant, when all is calm and still in our nests on our own, usually storm-tossed seas.

Posted in Holidays, Literature