As it usually does, this year (2018) the winter solstice in Pebonkik – the North Land – lands on December 21st, specifically at 5:23 pm in our region (EST). In our modern scientific understanding, as a detached observer with the perspective of an imaginary point in space, this the time when the North Pole of the earth, in its annual orbit of the sun, is facing farthest away from its light and warmth, due to the fixed tilt of our axis. The seasonal calendar lags behind a little, due to the earth’s great thermal mass, but on the solar cycle, this is actually Mid-Winter, and is known as such in many old cultures. As we continue our yearlong orbit, we find ourselves tipped relatively more toward the sun, lessening the ratio of night to day, until we reach the summer solstice position on or near June 21st, half an orbit and half a year away.
But now, back here in the northeast part of the continent, the approach of the winter solstice means the daylight grows scant and the nights extend their long darkness. The noonday peak of the sun’s circuit across the sky sags toward the horizon, dropping lower every day, until it slows to a virtual stop at its nadir. Here it seems to pause for a few days: in fact, the English word “solstice” derives from “sun stands still.” This is how it is experienced for a person standing in their own familiar landscape, watching the changing sky with the passing of days. Indigenous cultures have developed protocols based around these celestial and seasonal rhythms, manifesting as both practical and ceremonial, to ensure their continuity and prosperity. They are encoded in their respective spiritual belief systems, with the assurance that the diligent observance of these practices is necessary for the ongoing mutual success of both cycle and celebrant.
To a community of Abenaki people, living in a close relationship with the landscape, marking the change of seasons and understanding the implications is a matter of necessity. Planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing, material and medicine gathering, and sheltering must be anticipated, planned, and achieved, with ample provision made until the cycle comes around again. With a close awareness of the changing signs, at the appropriate times these activities are signaled and marked with traditional practices such as feasts, dances, ceremonies, songs, and stories, reminders of the importance of what is at hand.
As winter sets in, the annual circle of seasons is seen as slowing to a quiet, still place: a time for resting, reflection, and renewal. The year is made of 13 moons, the approximate number of full lunar cycles in a solar year. Each lunar month begins with the new moon, with a 29 1/2 day cycle through the full moon until the next new moon.
The old year ends with the new moon before the winter solstice. This last moon (the current one) is known as Pebonkas – Winter Maker; it may also be called Kchikizos – Great Moon (kchi=great + kizos=full moon), due to the clarity of the shining disc in the cold, clear sky. The solstice lies within this moon and signals the time when the sun stands still, low in the sky, and then begins to climb higher. This is known as “Peboniwi t8ni kizos wazwasa” – “In winter when the sun returns to the same place.” Two other names, for reasons already given, are first: “kwagwanidebokak” – “the very long night” (kwagwani=very long + debokak=when it is night) and second “n8wiponasik” – “midwinter” (n8wi=middle + pon=winter + asik=the one that is).
On these long, cold nights stories are told around the fires in the wigw8m, more so than at other times, when the longer days and warmer weather are better utilized in other pursuits. The stories entertain, teach, remind, and reinforce, important for a culture that depends on oral transmission of tradition, wisdom, and history. This is how the next generations learn who they are, from whence they have come, and how they in turn may become good ancestors of those yet to appear. Circumspectly, many of these stories are only told at this time of the year, when the subjects of the discourse are asleep and dreaming beneath the ground or ice, or caves, or gone until warmer days return. Their rest will be undisturbed, not overhearing their names and their stories being shared in the firelight within the snug bark lodges.
The next month is called “Alamikos” or “Anhaldamawikizos” – Greetings Maker or Forgiveness Moon. It is the first moon of the Abenaki annual cycle and it begins on Jan. 5th this year with its own dark phase, and has its own traditions, which we will address in another post.