Have a Merry Eclipse and a Happy Solstice

By | December 28, 2010

It may sound strange, but many people I know are doing exactly that—replacing modern holidays with ancient observances. But just how old are they? And do we really want to replace some holidays?

The winter solstice was a couple of days ago, and that night there was a lunar eclipse. I wouldn’t have known about the solstice if I hadn’t looked at my calendar or heard others talking about it, as there’s no way to tell by simple observation. We’ve had long nights for a few weeks now, and it’s going to be a few more weeks before we notice the days starting to lengthen. I might have missed the eclipse as well if people hadn’t mentioned it. And if astronomers hadn’t mentioned it to them. In fact, I missed it anyway—the night was cloudy.

Would I go out of my way to celebrate either? Nope. If I need personal, outside sources like calendars and webpages to tell me what’s going on in the natural world, I don’t have a personal relationship with the events. If I can’t observe or feel them directly, how different are they from New Year’s Day or Santa coming on Christmas Eve?

The observance of celestial events was probably unheard of by our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and there is no evidence of them doing so. Why would they ritualize some abstract day having no relevance in their lives? And how could they do so anyway with no observatories or calendars to forecast the events? They were people of the Moon—Blueberry Moon, Caribou Migration Moon, Flooding Moon—living in balance with these seasonal rhythms. It wasn’t until the advent of agriculture that we needed precise dates—a solar-based calendar—for seed preparation, planting, and harvest. Here the solstices and equinoxes have relevance, so ritual observances evolved around them and other agricultural events.

For me, a person returning to the foraging ways of the clan, lunar time reckoning fits. During the Freezing-over Moon when we come in cold and fatigued with coolers full of spawning Cisco we just spent a long night netting, I feel what it means deep in my bones, and my people and I celebrate the event with feeling—with passion.


4 Comments

Thomas on January 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm.

I couldn´t agree more. Last winter I didn´t really know when christmas and New Year´s Eve was happening since i was living in the woods and this year I only noticed because other people kept reminding me. Same with my birthday. Whether I feellike celebrating or not, the calendar tells me that this is the day to celebrate. Without a calendar to keep track of those dates, I find that there´s more room for spontaneous celebration – finishing a challenging task, a friend´s recovery from a sickness, the sudden burst of sunlight after many snowy days…

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Leah on January 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm.

I really resonate with this. Tomorrow is my birthday, which I use as a quiet time to reflect, rather than something for someone else to recognize and celebrate “me” with. Well, I still appreciate that people recognize it. My culture and the way I was brought up still lead me to heap some importance on this day, but I’d much rather make room for celebrating the things that I actually do and am, rather than a random calendar day.

I wonder what kinds of things we can come up with in our culture to celebrate with each other? Rites of passage are few and far between. There are a number of them – lots during childhood, though they are generally glossed over. Birthdays are far more richly “celebrated” than first step or first word. Here, we celebrated our kids’ first kill, but not all people hunt.

What can we celebrate in our culture? Any ideas?

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Drew Jacob on January 7, 2011 at 2:15 am.

Hi Tamarack, great blog!

We talked about this a little when I was at the Drum. There is evidence that hunter-gatherer Natives made astronomic observances. Not far from you (by modern vehicle standards) are a series of stone circles on Beaver Island, MI.

If I had seen just one of the circles I might have thought it was coincidence, but there are at least four. They are all aligned with the same astronomical points, including one of the solstice sunrises (I forget offhand if it is the summer or winter solstice). These predate European settlers. The Ottawa peoples of Michigan continue to visit every summer for ceremony.

Your point is well taken that the exact date of the solstices can’t be be observed casually. But just by driving two wooden poles in the ground any individual can make a daily observance and tell when it happens. You needn’t have a clock, you can just note the position of the sun on the horizon in relation to one of the wooden poles. Do this each day as the sun sets or rises and (if you’re blessed with a few clear days in a row) you can narrow down the exactly date of the solstice to about a 3 day window, just with your bare eyes.

The people of the Lake Michigan area went to a lot more trouble than that, moving stones into place to form an observatory. As non-agriculturalists they didn’t need exact dates, but they sought them out anyway. Perhaps they were just curious. Maybe they wanted to know if it took the same number of days each year or if it varied. We’ll probably never know but the evidence of their astronomical observations is right there to see, mapped out and still in use for ceremony.

There’s no reason

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Tamarack on January 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm.

Greetings Drew,

I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. The format, which fits my communication style, turns out to be a great way to share with others, so I’m having fun here as well.

Based on the immediate evidence on Beaver Island, your theory regarding the stone circles makes sense. I found that there may be other explanations as well. According to my research, the Ottawa migrated into the Beaver Island area from the south around 1765. They were semi-nomadic hunter gatherers, supplementing their diets with garden produce, largely corn. A mile and a half north of Beaver Island is another island called Miniss Kitigan — Garden Island in Ojibwe. I gathered Sweetgrass around the edges of the old garden plots, which are still visible.

Even though the Ottawa practiced some gardening, my hunch is that they inherited the stone circles from a people who inhabited the island prior to European contact, as you suggest. The Hopewells, who practiced intensive agriculture and constructed solar-lunar observatories similar to those on Beaver Island, had a strong presence in southwest Michigan. The Garden-Beaver Island complex lied on their trade route to Upper Michigan, so it’s possible they or a related people constructed the circles. Do you know if they have been dated?

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