Clouds hide the platform on which the Inti Raymi is performed. It is the Festival of the Sun performed by the shaman priests of Macchu Picchu, high in the Andes mountains of Peru. The procession materializes out of the billowing clouds. Elaborate headdresses and flowing robes appear. The sound of the Peruvian flute wafts across the ridgetop. When the clouds dissipate, a breathtaking view emerges of distant valleys and rivers, some thousands of feet below, with mountain peaks beyond, framing the scene. It is amazing to think that people actually thrived here, clinging to the sides of the mountain ridge.
They have come to perform the ancient ritual to secure the sun in its flight from the heavens by attaching it to the large column of stone called the Intihuatana (in-tee-wha-tan-ya), the “hitching post of the sun.” In Inca mythology, this ceremony prevented the sun from disappearing altogether below the horizon on the shortest day of the year.
As we approach the shortest day of the year in our hemisphere, December 21st, I wonder if our culture also needs to perform rituals to make certain that the sun will return to us as well. Steeped in modernity, with my scientific understanding of the rotating wobble of our planet around the sun, I am reassured that the days will grow longer and the nights shorter as we progress through the calendar year towards summer.
We humans have developed a variety of festivals, holidays, rituals, and other celebrations, focused on this important day in the year. The Winter solstice is the day in which the sun appears, at noon, at its lowest altitude above the horizon. Neolithic archeological sites such as Stonehenge identify the interest our ancestors had in marking this day.
The following months, January through April, were known, up until modern times, as the famine months. Many did not make it through those tough times when food was scarce. Some archeologists suggest that many of the celebrations associated with this day, were the result of needing to cull the herds before this long season. Feeding livestock through the long winter months was not common. Thus fresh meat was available at this time. In addition, the fermenting wines and beers, prepared during the end of the summer harvest, would be ready to consume about this point in the year. A celebration of a successful year and a preparation for the winter to come, seems an appropriate mix.
We moderns have a mix of responses to this time of the year as well. There are certainly elements of celebration: “Tis the season to be jolly…”; office parties abound; New Year’s Eve is the occasion for revelry; and so on.
We have also designated this as a time of increasing concern, anxiety, and even depression: seasonal affective disorder; the holiday blues; dread of winter approaching.
These are our months of emotional famine. Shakespeare identified this, in Richard III, in his phrase the “winter of our discontent…” though he was referring to historical political events in British Royal history.
I suspect we need this mix of celebration and preparation. We do seem a bit heavy on the celebration part, to the detriment of preparation. Some additional attention to preparing for the winters of our discontents would be useful. This might include grearing up on information, strategies of coping, or mindsets to practice. In particular, we can focus on our connectedness to friends and family. This can be our version of the Intihuatana, the hitching post of the sun, to make certain that we will have the experience of our winter discontents “made summer” by maintaining these connections.
And so, as we celebrate this special time, let us also prepare by wrapping ourselves in the warmth of great friends and a loving family, to guard against the cold of whatever winters lie ahead.