A WORLD without warmth, a world without light.
It's what our ancient ancestors most feared. It's why - as the nights grew longer and the possibility that the sun would never return grew stronger - they worked their winter solstice magic. Diverse myths tell of sun deities who withdraw their life-sustaining energy from Earth and must be coaxed out of hiding each year, like a baby from its mother's womb.
The Cherokee Sun locks herself in her house, grieving for her dead daughter, and can be enticed to smile only by the music and dancing of young people. Bomong, sun goddess of the Minyong of India, covers herself with a gigantic rock at the death of her sister; only when a carpenter revives the sister does she emerge, to the singing of birds and beasts.
The Finnish Paivatar is captive in a dark cave guarded by a witch, whose henchmen must be vanquished by a poet before the sun can be freed.
Perhaps the most famous is Amaterasu Omikami, whom even modern Japanese emperors have claimed as ancestor. Ashamed at the bad behavior of her brother, this "Heaven Shining Great August Spirit" hides in a cave, leaving heaven and Earth in darkness.
To entice her forth, Joseph Campbell tells us in The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, "the 8 million spirits of the Plain of Heaven assembled trees before the cave, bedecked with jewels, lighted bonfires and laughed aloud with such uproar at a raucous dance ... that the goddess ... becoming curious, opened the door to peek out. They held a mirror before her, the first she had ever seen; she was drawn out, and the world again was alight."
The sacredness of this hour of the sun deity's return has been honored not just in stories but in structures. In Ireland, for example, the Neolithic Newgrange burial mound was built so that only at dawn on the winter solstice does the sun shine directly through an opening above the main entry into the heart of the tomb. Winter solstice generally falls on Dec. 21, as it does this year.
Surely such monuments of stone and stories come from an understanding that is as deep in us as it was in our ancient forebears. Without the return of the sun, there is no new beginning, no new year, no hope: for a better life, a more peaceful world, a greater generosity, a stronger spirit - all of the things we need most to believe in.
Maybe this is why we still practice sympathetic magic in the dark of December. At solstice time, we string our evergreen trees with lights and bedeck them with sun-shaped "jewels"; we light bonfires in our hearths, set candles in our windows.
On New Year's Eve, we shoot fireworks into the black sky, we dance raucously and laugh aloud. In the aptly named Times Square, we gather, a crowd of strangers pressing for community, and count the seconds till the great illuminated ball makes its slow descent, bringing the bright promise of possibility.
It is the birthday of the sun.
Patricia Montley is a free-lance writer who lives in Lutherville.