As I serenely lounged by the pool mid-afternoon today with my eyes closed, my ruddy face directed to the sky, I suddenly became aware that the dazzling sunshine was fleetingly blocked not by a cloud but by the frenzied tops of a distant tree. The hindrance was not the usual grey patch of a passing cloud; rather it was the shimmering light streaming through tree branches tossed about in a high wind. This has not been the pattern for the past month. I know this because I have always positioned myself on or about the same lounge chair each time I have visited the pool. The change today was evidence that we’re approaching the Winter Solstice and I will have to accommodate my sunbathing ritual accordingly.
The winter solstice, also called the hibernal solstice, occurs when either of Earth’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere (Northern and Southern). For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. Either pole experiences continuous darkness or twilight around its winter solstice.
Although one likes to think of the Florida Keys as the Mecca of endless sunshine, it is nonetheless inhibited by common global patterns. As I sit here at my desk looking out upon the bobbing yacht moorings, the late afternoon sunshine is already waning. The tops of the palm trees along the boat slip walkway have that mixture of yellow and green peculiar to the low slant of wintry sunlight anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere.
This transition has unwittingly dampened my passion for swimming in the sea. Part of the seasonal climate change is an uptick of wind which turns the once placid, warm sea to a cooler disturbance of ceaseless waves which hinder the customary idle flotation and cloud the vision of the water beneath.
Naturally I know this is but a temporary impediment; and normally I would be reluctant even to mention the anticipated and predictable modification. But living as we do here so closely allied to the weather and the sunlight we have adopted the once primitive reactions of our ancestors.
The winter solstice was immensely important because the 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. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but at the beginning of the pagan day, which in many cultures fell on the previous eve.
Contiguous to this abbreviation of light is the celebratory pattern surrounding the New Year, bringing with it as it does the themes of rebirth and modification popularized by quitting bad habits and making improvements to one’s life, starting afresh, renewing hope for whatever it is that propels each of us. I have to confess that this particular celestial transition is of less importance to me than the slant of the sun. My days of indulgence have long ago been tempered. As a credit to my imminent evaporation I have abandoned as both unlikely and unnecessary any project of appreciable improvement. Instead I devote what time remains to learning to live with myself (such as it is). The blunt repercussion of this verbiage is that my current idea of decadence is confined to sprouted multigrain bread, buttered, with peanut butter and honey.