The holidays are upon us whether we’re ready or not and with or without the snow.
The winter solstice Dec. 21 is the year’s shortest day and brings with it the official onset of winter. It also is a day of hope, as it heralds the gradual return of longer periods of sunlight after prolonged darkness.
The term solstice means “sun stands still.” On the winter solstice, the sun appears to stop in its trudging journey across the sky and hang in one position. The sun’s “changing position” throughout the year is caused by the rotation of the Earth on its tilted axis as it circles the sun each year.
The winter solstice is rooted in ancient religions, and it is no surprise that many of our holidays occur around this time. Throughout history, humans have observed this astronomical phenomenon and embraced spiritual and cultural traditions to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year.
Traditional solstice celebrations existed in many ancient cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days after the solstice by paying homage to Mithra – an ancient Persian god of light.
The ancient Greeks celebrated Alcyone, the kingfisher goddess who nested for three weeks every winter, causing the seas to become calm and peaceful. Since the belted kingfisher is the mascot for Durango Nature Studies and the key symbol on our logo, we feel a special affinity with the winter solstice. For us, December is our planning month when we stop our programming so we can emerge in January with a new annual schedule.
Kingfishers build their nests each year by water, and a pair take turns digging a tunnel into earthen banks near their fishing territory. The tunnel is usually 3- to 7-feet long when completed. Eggs are laid in total darkness, with incubation lasting for three weeks.
After about five weeks, the young will leave their nest. These days are the most hazardous. During a fledgling’s first dives into water, it may become waterlogged and drown. Many young will not have learned to fish by the time they are driven out of their parents’ territory, and only about half survive more than a week or two.
Most kingfishers die of cold or lack of food, and a severe winter can kill a high percentage of the birds. Summer floods can destroy nests or make fishing difficult, resulting in starvation of the brood. Only a quarter of the young survive to breed the next year, but this is enough to maintain the population.
So, perhaps the time in darkness for the kingfisher is really a time of safety before venturing into the world to face what life has in store. Even though the winter solstice is lauded as the time when light begins to return, the kingfisher is a reminder to take solace in these dark days and reflect on what has been before the renewal and light of the new year.
email@example.com or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.