Here in the northern hemisphere, the midday sun sinks lower towards the southern horizon every day.
We know it will come back up. Ancient civilizations could not be as confident. They erected solar observatories, like Stonehenge, to track what they saw as the sun’s—not the Earth’s—wobble. They set tunnels deep into earth mounds, as at Newgrange in Ireland, which would be penetrated by sunlight on only one moment a year.
In South America, the Incas built their temples around a stone hitching post. The rest of the structure could consist of individual stones, meticulously fitted to withstand recurring earth tremors. But the hitching post itself had to be carved from solid bedrock. Because it anchored the imaginary rope that reined in the sun from its headlong plunge towards the horizon.
Imaginary ropes? It sounds ridiculous to the modern mind.
Because we now know exactly why the sun arcs overhead. It’s all about the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to the plane of the Earth’s annual ecliptic orbit around the sun. (If that explanation makes little sense to you, you might prefer the imaginary rope.)
Thanks to astronomy and mathematics, we can calculate exactly when the sun will reverse its decline. In the Okanagan, that moment comes at 3:03 p.m., Pacific Time, on Sunday, Dec. 21.
But I wonder how many imaginary ropes we still wrap around bedrock beliefs.
Almost every civilization has some kind of festival of lights. Diwali, Chanukah, Christmas—they all occur during the months when darkness increases its momentum. In our culture, even pagans and atheists celebrate Christmas. Are those lights, perhaps, our imaginary rope—a symbolic act that defies the darkness to advance any farther, an affirmation that darkness cannot overcome us?
It’s no coincidence that Christmas happens near the winter solstice.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia was also a time of candles and extravagant light. It suspended most of the social rules. For the week around the winter solstice, slaves and owners mingled in an atmosphere of pseudo-equality. Laws and prohibitions were temporarily suspended, with lots of singing, dancing and drinking.
In that freewheeling atmosphere, the new Christian communities could celebrate without fear of persecution. Any other time of year, they were considered traitors; they refused to worship the Roman emperor as god.
So, December 25 became their imaginary rope, connecting them to Jesus’ birth. But his birth date wasn’t actually made official until AD 354.
Because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the Bible that defines that date of Jesus’ birth.
It wouldn’t be stated as December 25, of course. The calendars we use today didn’t exist yet. The Roman calendar of the time was based on the founding of Rome some 500 years before.
There isn’t even a reference that links Jesus’ birth to any of the Jewish festivals—unlike Easter, which is still associated with Passover.
But a lot of people remain convinced that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. They wrap their imaginary rope around an imaginary date, and hang on tight.
I wonder how many other imaginary ropes we keep hanging onto.