Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Offerings for Saturnalia

We’ve been treated to an unusual astronomical trifecta: a total lunar eclipse of a full moon on the winter solstice. The brilliant pristine cool white of the Long Night’s Moon turned a shaded gray while in the Earth’s penumbra, and a haunting red during its 73 minutes in the umbra.

Despite the brevity of sunlight on this shortest day of the year, my “day” was long: from my arousal at 12:51 a.m. to watch the eclipse to an 11 p.m. bedtime after an evening with friends for Yalda, the Persian Winter Solstice celebration. After a delicious dinner, we noshed on the traditional Yalda foods of watermelon, nuts, and pomegranates, and then read poems of the Sufi lyric poet, Hafiz.

Today marks the beginning of the “returning” vigor of the sun, though honestly we won’t feel its effects for some time. We must first endure the frigidities of January and February, and the frequent frosts of March, before we can fully welcome the warmth of the sun and the life it generates.

On this solstice I am somehow, for some reason, reminded how uneven our lives really are. We lurch from one extreme to another, even as we try to mediate and balance. Perhaps this makes the equinoxes so utterly special: precisely because those are rare moments of equanimity in a decidedly unequal world. The ancient Romans had the same thought, I suppose, for their Feast of Saturnalia, observed during these long nights, rested precisely on irreverence for tradition, subversion of the social order, the deliberate making of merry, [and even gift giving, or saturnalia et sigillaricia]. Slaves became masters, and masters became slaves, punishment was forbidden, and all drank themselves into wondrous orgies.
My garden is an orgy right now…but not an orgy in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture and harvest. It is an orgy of building material (both discarded and new), insulation, wood, metal caps (for window exteriors), and the old iron weights that once resided in the recesses of the window wells. Visually, it’s a mess. Metaphorically, though, the orgy of materials is an offering to Saturn, a saturnalia et sigillaricia, an ode to harvesting and retaining heat and warmth, just like the soil in early spring, which warms the roots of herbaceous plants, instigating them to another season of growth and wonderment.

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