Late Monday night and early Tuesday morning, North America was treated to a rare celestial occurrence: a total eclipse of the full moon on the winter solstice. Total lunar eclipses happen fairly often (according to NASA, there have been three within the past decade alone). However, within the past 2000 years, the only previous solstice total eclipse was in 1638, and the next one won’t occur until 2094.
In contemporary society, most people no longer pay much attention to the sky except on these rare occasions. We no longer rely on the stars for navigation or the planets for timekeeping. Light pollution from major cities and other sources has greatly reduced the number of stars visible to the naked eye. Even if we could identify the constellations (and, yes, there is an app for that), most of the signifying stars wouldn’t be visible in most locations anyway. But an eclipse is an event that unites us as it draws our gaze upward.
For all of recorded history, humans have wondered at eclipses, attempting to divine meaning from them. Today’s astrologers tell us that this is a bad time for travel and for beginning new projects. Previous lunar eclipses have been associated with the Siege of Syracuse, a great fire in the Temple of Athena, and the Fall of Constantinople, among many other sorrowful times. Most early societies considered eclipses to be bad omens, and nearly all explained them by creating tales of a giant creature (for the Chinese, a dragon; for the Vikings, a wolf; etc.) eating the celestial body, and responded to the events by making noise to frighten the creature before it could cause permanent damage.
Personally, I always look forward to the winter solstice. In December, I generally awaken in darkness and spend most of my free time in evening darkness. When the solstice arrives, I know that I’ve reached the halfway point. I cling to each extra minute of daylight on these mid-winter days as a sign that spring is around the corner. That the longest night of the year is bisected by such a beautiful phenomenon allows for a pause in my daily routine and for me to consider my connection with those who preceded me, who might have wondered whether the moon would ever reappear.
While I don’t believe that celestial events control our daily lives, I also see no reason to push my luck. And so I am enjoying the solstice at home, hoping to avoid the accidents predicted by astrologers, thinking about the events it might augur, waiting a few days for a more auspicious time to start new projects. After all, the days are getting longer.