The Winter Solstice Lunar Eclipse: Surface and Symbol

We stayed awake until 3:30 this morning to watch the lunar eclipse. Since it was the first time that it’s fallen on the same day as the winter solstice in nearly 400 years, I insisted on seeing it and, though my husband Eric was exhausted and had to wake up four hours later for work, he stayed up with me. Unfortunately, it was cloudy. Still, we did get to see a little of it and I think it was worth staying up for. We first went out around 2:00 AM and stood in the driveway for fifteen minutes or so, staring at the sky and waiting for holes in the thick blanket of cloud to pass over the moon. After catching several glimpses of it, half-lit and half in shadow, we felt mostly satisfied and went to bed. Around 3:00 AM, my sister sent me a text that said she was watching the eclipse, so I woke Eric and we went into the office at the front of the house, pulled up the blinds, and searched the still-cloudy sky until, finally, we saw the hazy, fully eclipsed moon, brown-red with just a sliver of white on the edge. We stayed there by the window, sitting cross-legged like little kids, craning our necks until they cramped, and then holding them up with our hands until we were too tired to stay awake and went back to bed.

It’s always been important to me to catch rare celestial phenomena like this, to view something historic that hasn’t been seen by many others. It makes me feel closer to the past, more a part of the fabric of history, united for a moment with the last people to have seen it in 1638. Moments like this are a large part of what makes life so wonderful and worthwhile — seeing great, unusual things that we have played no part in creating, small and powerless as we are. It’s in these moments — in the silence and darkness, faced with something beautiful and strange — that I sense life’s mystery most acutely.

Oscar Wilde wrote in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is at once surface and symbol.” Life, too, is at once surface and symbol: changing seasons represent the cycle of life and death for cultures the world over, as does the cycle of the moon, slowly growing until it reaches its fullest point, then slowly diminishing. Even the smallest wilting flower is a symbol of something else: life’s beautiful, inevitable transience. For a long time, people have considered winter a time of  hardship and death, and for good reason: vegetation withers; livestock are slaughtered; the days are short and the nights long. A total lunar eclipse — which occurs when the moon passes through the center of the earth’s shadow and, due to the effects of the earth’s atmosphere, turns the moon red — was an omen of evil for many people through the ages. Yet darkness doesn’t have to signify evil, even in death or times of hardship. For some, like myself, it’s purely visual mystery, and so the onset of winter and the lunar eclipse are symbols of the unknown. As such, they signify a time to contemplate mystery — not to resolve it, but to enjoy its presence, to appreciate not knowing.

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