Christmas, Winter, and Nature

Since fall, the days have been getting shorter; the nights longer. The farther north you live, the more extreme the effect until, in the most northern parts of Canada and Alaska, there is a period when the sun barely illuminates the horizon. Darkness reigns supreme. Some people are strongly influenced by short days and suffer from serious depression during the winter. Called Seasonal Affective Dysfunction or SAD, it is sometimes referred to as cabin fever. When the long darkness comes and is coupled with day after day of overcast skies, snow, and cold, the affects can be severe. For those suffering extreme depression from SAD, exposure to special light panels is sometimes prescribed to artificially lengthen the sufferer’s day and alleviate their symptoms. But, take heart; we’re almost at the end of our abbreviated southern gloom. About the 21st of this month the winter solstice arrives, bringing with it a reversal of the sun’s retreat toward the equator. Each day thereafter we’ll see a bit more daylight.

Not only have the days changed, so have the nights. The starry spectacle overhead is entirely different than it was only a few months ago. Winter brings out the brightest and best known constellations. By 10 p.m. the hourglass figure of Orion the Hunter is high in the eastern sky. Just above his head is a bright orange “star” that is really the planet Saturn. A pair of 10-power binoculars will reveal an oval hint of Saturn’s rings, and a spotting scope or small telescope will improve the view. The planet is making its closest approach in 30 years. To the left of Orion are the stars Castor and Pollux, the heads of the Gemini twins. Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major, is just below Orion; the brightest star in our heavens. Directly above Orion lies the V-shaped pattern that is Taurus the Bull, and still farther up, the tight cluster of stars called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters sparkles. If you have even a marginal interest in the stars, winter is the time to get completely hooked. Our mild winters make it easy to enjoy the overhead celestial show.

Winter also brings shifts in weather patterns over the world’s oceans. Normally, winds blow from west to east over the Pacific Ocean, causing warm surface waters to move toward the coasts of Indonesia and other lands of the western Pacific. This causes a thinning of warmer surface waters in the eastern Pacific that permits colder, deeper water to well up along the coast of South America, bringing with it a higher concentration of nutrients. The result is that fishing along the west coast of South and Central America improves markedly. The increasing warmth of the water in the western Pacific brings rain to that area. However, for reasons not entirely understood, a cyclic shift in the usual Pacific wind patterns develops. The western flow of air decreases or even reverses, allowing much warmer ocean water to accumulate along the coast of South America, reducing upwelling of nutrients and causing a major decline in fish catches. Because this eastern wind shift becomes most marked around Christmas, it has been called El Nino, after the Christ child. El Nino weather is notorious for producing abnormally rainy and stormy weather all along the west coast of South and Central America, and even up to California, and from time to time as far as Alaska. It has been a few years since the last El Nino event, but this winter it’s back, although in somewhat milder fashion. Nevertheless, California has experienced some very severe weather recently, and across the southern tier of states abnormally wet weather can be expected.

Of course, the period just after the winter solstice also includes the 25th of December, which many people around the world celebrate as the birthday of Jesus Christ. But, that date is in question. If the Biblical-land shepherds had their sheep in the field at the time, many authorities suggest that his birth occurred in the spring. Some suggest a specific date of April 6th. Even the year of his birth is uncertain; some saying it might have been any time from 7 BC to 3 AD. The debates will likely go on forever, but most people will probably continue to accept December 25th as the proper day for Christmas.

Christmas has long been intertwined with folklore and pagan practices. Holly for luck and divine blessings, mistletoe for kisses, evergreen trees symbolizing eternal life and the starry night sky, Yule logs to burn for the twelve days of Christmas all have their part. Unfortunately, tinsel and sleigh bells, Santa and elves, credit cards and sales, turkey and dressing, greed, avarice and the coveting of material goods seem to have blurred the real reason for this season so sacred to Christians.

But, through it all, my childhood reverie and nostalgic recollections of Christmas past still control my thoughts at this time of the year. In my mind I visualize awe struck shepherds watching their flocks by night as angels surrounded them, and one proclaimed “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

So, as Linus said, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” He’s right. May this season bring you happiness, a rejuvenation of your spirit, and a desire to be a better person. Merry Christmas!

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.