Winter Solstice Reads: The Cold Moon and the New Light

Yule and Solstice Greetings Sky Dancers!

Today we have the longest night, the Ursid Meteor Showers. and a Full Moon for Saturday.  Yes, Saturday is the full moon. It wasn’t yesterday but don’t tell that to the lunatic in the Oval Office.  Tomorrow is the new light. I think that’s an important symbol for those of us that are overwhelmed with the Chaos Demon dwelling in the White House.

So what’s going on with this full moon?

Our last full moon of the year will come less than a day after the solstice. Again, for those of you who love precision, it will occur on Saturday, December 22, at 17:49 Universal Time (that’s 12:49 p.m. ET), EarthSky says.

However, when you’re looking out into a clear sky on Friday night, the moon will appear full to you — and could be so bright that people with pretty good eyesight could read by it.

Over many centuries, this moon has been called several names: Cold Moon, Cold Full Moon, Long Night Moon (by some Native American tribes) or the Moon Before Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon lunar calendar).

If you’re wondering how special this Cold Moon is so close to the solstice, it will be 2029 before it happens again. So it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but still, you don’t see this too often.

Now what about that meteor shower?

The annual Ursids meteor shower is expected to peak a day or two after the solstice. You might be able to see up to 10 “shooting stars” per hour depending on your location.

The website In the Sky has a great feature that helps you figure out where to watch and how many meteors you might see. For instance, people in South Florida might expect just three per hour while people in Juneau, Alaska, might expect seven per hour.

One caveat: That Cold Moon will be so bright that it could outshine some of the meteors as they streak in, making them harder to spot.

And then there’s the lunatic in the Oval Office who is ensuring the end of the year is utter chaos. From Sarah Grillo at Axios: “Pre-Christmas Trump: Rebuked, rampaging”.

The last member of an informal alliance of top Trump officials with enough swat or stature to stand up to President Trump — the Committee to Save America, as we called these officials 16 months ago — resigned in epic fashion.

The bottom line: Unlike most others, who pretended to leave on fine terms, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis bailed with a sharp, specific, stinging rebuke of Trump and his America-first worldview.

  • Mattis wrote: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held.”
  • And the general drops the mic: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my positions.”
  • Back when Trump first took office, he had bragged: “[M]y generals … are going to keep us so safe … If I’m doing a movie, I pick you, General Mattis.”

It was a historic letter and a historic moment capping a historic day, one you could easily see filling a full chapter of future books on the Trump presidency. The wheels felt like they were coming off the White House before Mattis quit.

  • The spiral began Wednesday when Trump saw conservative media turn on him when he appeared to be caving on funding for the border wall in order to avoid a government shutdown.
  • Trump then announced he was keeping a different campaign promise: withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. And yesterday, word leaked that he had ordered a drawdown from Afghanistan.
  • “[T]he president was super pissed and [conservatives] have him all whipped up … [H]e is seething at the media reports of him retreating,” a Republican lobbyist emailed.
  • An outside adviser added: “What triggered Trump on Syria was giving up on the wall.”
  • By midday, the wall was back and Trump was telling congressional leaders he was prepared to allow a partial government shutdown.

The backdrop … Spooked by Trump’s actions and statements, Wall Street is on track for its worst year in a decade — since the financial crisis of 2008.

Scoop: As a sign of the mood inside, officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue tell us that Trump is complaining about his incoming chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, in conversations inside the West Wing and with Capitol Hill.

  • Trump asked one trusted adviser: “Did you know [Mulvaney] called me ‘a terrible human being’” back during the campaign?
  • We’re told that Trump was furious when the slight surfaced in a two-year-old video right after he promoted Mulvaney. (A spokeswoman says that was before Mulvaney met Trump.)

An outside adviser to Trump told me as the president’s “landmark day of chaos” unspooled: “He is straddling the political precipice.”

  • Why it matters: Mattis was the last to go — after outgoing White House chief of staff John Kelly, former-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and economic adviser Gary Cohn — of the officials sometimes called the “axis of adults.”
  • As captured by cable news … MSNBC: “TRUMP CHAOS” … CNN: “DEFENSE SECRETARY QUITS … AS GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN LOOMS AND FINANCIAL MARKETS TANK” … Fox News: “SHUTDOWN SHOWDOWN.”

Reality check: Trump was never going to adopt the establishment consensus that a strong U.S. military presence would be required for the foreseeable future in Afghanistan and Syria. Trump has never felt that.

It’s really difficult to document all the shit hitting the fan today.  The withdrawals from both Syria and Afghanistan are getting press play.  The equity markets are nosediving again. Then, there’s the entire debacle about keeping the government open and paying people that do things like stand watch on battle fields, process social security checks, and take eager tourists through national parks and historic sites.

Aren’t we all getting tired of budget brinkmanship?  Last night, the House sent forward the budget with KKKremlin Caligula’s $5 million wall craziness.  Many voted for it just to spite Pelosi.  Paul Ryan cannot get out of town quick enough for me.  He’s a blob with no spine, no guts, and no brains.  The Senate has the blob ball today.

GOP Hardliners are okay with a shut down.  What about the rest of the country?

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows picked up the phone early Thursday morning and dialed up a frustrated Donald Trump for yet another pep talk.

The president was agitated over suggestions in the conservative media that he was caving on his border wall campaign promise. He had just taken to Twitter to downplay the importance of securing new wall funding before Christmas and suggested he’d fight for the wall next Congress — GOP leadership’s preferred strategy to avoid a shutdown.

But Meadows, who is close with the president and was recently in the running to be his next chief of staff, urged Trump to make a stand now before Democrats took the House in January — just as he had the night before and multiple times earlier in the week. Stick to your guns, the North Carolina Republican told the president, according to a source familiar with the conversation. We conservatives will have your back. And now is the last best chance to fight.

Never mind that half the Senate had left town for the holidays having voice-voted passage of a temporary funding bill without wall money, all while Democrats sang Christmas carols on the floor. And never mind that House GOP leaders were already twisting arms in their caucus to support a proposal they thought the White House wanted.

Not four hours later, the president hauled Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders to the West Wing and instructed them to change course. And they did.

“I’m OK with a shutdown,” Trump told the group, according to two sources in the room.

The hard-liners had defeated leadership once again, and Washington was barreling into another crisis of its own making with no endgame in sight.

All of this has the markets dropping like it’s 1929 and the US government is disrupted. This is likely Bannon’s wetdream come true.  From the big guns and WAPO:

President Trump began Thursday under siege, listening to howls of indignation from conservatives over his border wall and thrusting the government toward a shutdown. He ended it by announcing the exit of the man U.S. allies see as the last guardrail against the president’s erratic behavior: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whose resignation letter was a scathing rebuke of Trump’s worldview.

At perhaps the most fragile moment of his presidency — and vulnerable to convulsions on the political right — Trump single-handedly propelled the U.S. government into crisis and sent markets tumbling with his gambits this week to salvage signature campaign promises.

The president’s decisions and conduct have led to a fracturing of Trump’s coalition. Hawks condemned his sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Conservatives called him a “gutless president” and questioned whether he would ever build a wall. Political friends began privately questioning whether Trump needed to be reined in.

fter campaigning on shrinking America’s footprint in overseas wars, Trump abruptly declared Wednesday that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a move Mattis and other advisers counseled against. And officials said Thursday that Trump is preparing to send thousands of troops home from Afghanistan, as well.

The president also issued an ultimatum to Congress to fund construction of his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move poised to result in a government shutdown just before Christmas. Trump and his aides had signaled tacit support for a short-term spending compromise that would avert the shutdown, but the president abruptly changed course after absorbing a deluge of criticism from some of his most high-profile loyalists.

Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary, CIA director and White House chief of staff for Democratic presidents, said, “We’re in a constant state of chaos right now in this country.” He added, “While it may satisfy [Trump’s] need for attention, it’s raising hell with the country.”

Putin must love these Trumpertantrums.  He already got a big gift with the Syria surrender.  All the ” adults in the room” have left the building.  The guardrails are gone.  What’s left?  None of the folks left are likely to do the 25th Amendment. This is getting stomach wrenching and this AP article describes the vestiges of those media memes.

Mattis will be the last to go, and his abrupt resignation Thursday marks the end of the “contain and control” phase of Trump’s administration — one where generals, business leaders and establishment Republicans struggled to guide the president and curb his most disruptive impulses. They were branded in Washington as the “troika of sanity,” the “axis of adults” and the “committee to save America.”

But as Trump careens toward his third year in office, their efforts are in tatters and most are out of a job.

The early consequences of the new era were already apparent at year’s end, with Trump on the verge of a government shutdown over the advice of GOP leaders and ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria over Mattis’ objections. A similar pull-back in Afghanistan appeared to be in the works. The financial markets, spooked by uncertainty from a nearly yearlong trade war, tanked.

“We are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted after Mattis’ resignation.

The shrinking circle around Trump is now increasingly dominated by a small cadre of longtime Trump loyalists and family members, ex-Fox News talent and former GOP lawmakers who were backbenchers on Capitol Hill before being elevated by the president. Attracting top flight talent will only get more difficult as more investigations envelop the White House once Democrats take over the House in January.

To some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, the exodus leaves the president with a team that is more in line with his hardline campaign promises. They viewed some of his early advisers as obstacles to enacting the unabashed nationalist agenda they believe Trump had been elected to implement.

These are really trying days but the new light is coming. Maybe that will be in an Omen. I mean this has always been the ancient symbolism of winter.  It’s long, dark, and cold wait but with some good food, friends, and fun then we can wait it out.  That’s always my question these days thought.  How long can we wait this out because things are getting super crazy out there.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?  Have a warm and snug longest night!!!


Christmas Day Reads

Obama santa

Good Morning!!

Merry Christmas to everyone who celebrates this day. Also, Happy Hanukkah, the festival of lights, which culminated last night. Happy Kwanzaa to those who will begin celebrating it tomorrow. And Happy Festivus “for the rest of us.”

How long have humans been celebrating the return of the light after the darkest day of the year–the Winter Solstice fell on Dec. 21 in 2014–when the days gradually begin getting longer? No one knows for sure, but it has been many centuries. I’ve gathered some articles about some ancient holidays around the solstice that preceded Christmas.

The ancient Romans celebrated the Saturnalia in tribute to the god Saturn, and Roman soldiers marked Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, in honor of the god Mithras.

Here’s a detailed description of the Saturnalia from a University of Chicago website.

In the Roman calendar, the Saturnalia was designated a holy day, or holiday, on which religious rites were performed. Saturn, himself, was identified with Kronos, and sacrificed to according to Greek ritual, with the head uncovered. The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia, and the woolen bonds which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue within were loosened on that day to symbolize the liberation of the god. It also was a festival day. After sacrifice at the temple, there was a public banquet, as well as a lectisternium (a banquet in which an image of the god is placed as if in attendance), which Livy says was introduced in 217 BC. “For a day and a night the cry of the Saturnalia resounded through the City, and the people were ordered to make that day a festival and observe it as such for ever” (History of Rome, XXII.1.19). Afterwards, according to Macrobius (I.10.18), the celebrants shouted Io, Saturnalia at a riotous feast in the temple.

The Saturnalia was the most popular holiday of the Roman year. Catullus describes it as “the best of days” (Poems, XIV), and Seneca complains that the “whole mob has let itself go in pleasures” (Epistles, XVIII.3). Pliny the Younger writes that he retired to his room while the rest of the household celebrated (Epistles, II.17.24). It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria. Martial wrote Xeniaand Apophoreta for the Saturnalia. Both were published in December and intended to accompany the “guest gifts” which were given at that time of year. Aulus Gellius relates that he and his Roman compatriots would gather at the baths in Athens, where they were studying, and pose difficult questions to one another on the ancient poets, a crown of laurel being dedicated to Saturn if no-one could answer them (Attic Nights, XVIII.2).

Saturnalia-1024x691

During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season (Martial, Epigrams, XIV.1). Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.15).

Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian has the god’s priest declare that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.” Statius recounts a “December tipsy with much wine, and laughing Mirth and wanton Wit,” remembering “the glad festival of our merry Caesar and the banquet’s drunken revel” (Silvae, I.6.1ff; also Suetonius, Domitian, IV.1; Dio, Roman History, LXVII.4.4). Figs, nuts, dates and other dainties were showered on the people, women and children, men and senators alike, and bread and wine served among the rows while guests were entertained by women fighting in the arena and cranes were hunted by dwarfs.

Relief of Mithras as bull-slayer from Neuenheim near Heidelberg, framed by scenes from Mithras' life (from Wikipedia).

Relief of Mithras as bull-slayer from Neuenheim near Heidelberg, framed by scenes from Mithras’ life (from Wikipedia).

From About.com: Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and Mithras.

Saturnalia may have been responsible for the pageantry of our midwinter festival, but it’s Mithraism that seems to have inspired certain symbolic religious elements of Christmas. Mithraism arose in the Mediterranean world at the same time as Christianity, either imported from Iran, as Franz Cumont believed, or as a new religion which borrowed the name Mithras from the Persians, as the Congress of Mithraic Studies suggested in 1971.

Mithraism radiated from India where there is evidence of its practice from 1400 B.C. Mitra was part of the Hindu pantheon* and Mithra was, perhaps, a minor Zoroastrian deity**, the god of the airy light between heaven and earth. He was also said to have been a military general in Chinese mythology.

The soldiers’ god, even in Rome (although the faith was embraced by male emperors, farmers, bureaucrats, merchants, and slaves, as well as soldiers), demanded a high standard of behavior, “temperance, self-control, and compassion — even in victory”….

The comparison of Mithraists and Christians is not coincidental. December 25 was Mithras’ birthday (or festival before it was Jesus’. The Online Mithraic Faith Newsletter [no longer available] says:

“Since earliest history, the Sun has been celebrated with rituals by many cultures when it began it’s journey into dominance after it’s apparent weakness during winter. The origin of these rites, Mithrasists believe, is this proclamation at the dawn of human history by Mithras commanding His followers to observe such rites on that day to celebrate the birth of Mithras, the Invincible Sun.”

Thor, god of thunder

Thor, god of thunder

In Scandinavia the Norse god Thor was honored with the Feast of Juul.

The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.

A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.

Click on the link to read about other ancient holidays centered around the Winter Solstice.

Two more articles on this history of Christmas:

From Pacific Standard Magazine, A Brief History of the Christmas Controversy: Can Christmas’ pagan roots explain its increasing secularization today?

During Constantine’s reign the Church Fathers went so far as to associate the “Unconquered Sun” with Jesus, referencing the “sun of righteousness” mentioned in Malachi 4:2 as evidence of Jesus, the true sun. Through this crafty legerdemain early Christians more easily shifted December 25 from the birth of Sol Invictus to the birth of Christ. Eventually several other important religious dates would pivot on Christmas, including the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christ’s ceremonial birth, the Epiphany, and the Adoration of the Magi. Once Christianity seized December 25, all the other historic moments and their accompanying mythologies fell into place. After emerging out of the husk of Saturnalia, Christmas gathered more and more momentum until it became a vital date inextricably bound to all the other sacred events and consecrated lore of the Christian tradition.

Roughly 1,600 years later, though, things are different. Christmas, at least as it’s celebrated in America, is no longer treated as an exclusively religious holiday. While millions of Americans still attend Christmas services, there are millions more who get swept up in an entirely different set of gratuitous lore: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Dickensian tableaus, and the lustrous charms of Disneyfication. But look beneath all of the modern flourishes and you’ll see something that looks a lot like Saturnalia: the ceremonial feasts, the singing in the streets (what we now call caroling), the holiday parties. Heck, Saturnalia even had a special day on December 23 reserved for the exchanging of gifts among friends and family—Sigillaria, so named after the wax figurines often given as presents.

The truth is that Christmas has not so much evolved into a secular celebration as it has come full circle, returning to its original incarnation as a sprawling festival more focused on levity and merrymaking than the worship of Jesus Christ….

It’s no blasphemy to declare that the December holiday season has once again become a pagan celebration; it’s an atavistic return to the ritual’s roots. The problem now, as the more devout Christians rightly point out, are those people caught in the middle of this identity crisis—identifying as members of Christianity and claiming belief in its savior, but investing little devotion, solemnity or faith in the embattled date.

Finally, here is an interesting article at a Jewish website on the origins of Christmas. Some excerpts:

In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it.  Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians….

Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia.  As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”  The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.

The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687 that “the early Christians who  first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”  Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681….

Some of the most depraved customs of the Saturnalia carnival were intentionally revived by the Catholic Church in 1466 when Pope Paul II, for the amusement of his Roman citizens, forced Jews to race naked through the streets of the city.  An eyewitness account reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators.  They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.”

Just some food for thought . . .

A few nice news headlines:

The photo at the top of this post is from Michelle Obama’s Toys for Tots event, at which President Obama sorted toys for boys any girls and took the opportunity to fight gender stereotypes about girls supposedly not liking toys involving sports, science, and legos. Joan McCarter wrote about it at Daily Kos yesterday, President Obama: ‘Girls don’t like toys?’.

See also Amanda Hess at Slate, Watch President Obama Break Down Stereotypes About Toys for Girls and Boys. Watch the video:

More presidential efforts to reach out to women and girls:

The Fix, That time Obama called on only women at a press conference.

Politico, That time Obama wore a tiara.

White House photographer Pete Souza shared a photo on Instagram on Wednesday of the president donning a tiara with a group of Girl Scouts from the White House Science Fair earlier this year in May. In the caption, Souza wrote the girls from Tulsa “convinced” Obama to join in on the fun.

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More news headlines:

I was going to write a big post about the 75th anniversary of the film of Gone With The Wind, but I’ve been too tired from traveling. Here’s a good article from yesterday about the events surrounding the anniversary and about the racism in the book and movie.

75 years later, ‘Gone With the Wind’ never left.

Reuters, Protests flare after Missouri police killing of armed black man.

Reuters, CDC worker monitored for possible Ebola exposure in lab error.

Dave Wiegel at Bloomberg Politics, This Christmas, Be Grateful You Didn’t Put All Your Money in Oil and Gold.

NY Daily News, Putin Calls for Cheaper Vodka as Russian Economy Stumbles.

Bloomberg, Saudi Rulers to Curb Wages as Kingdom Confronts Oil Slump

The Telegraph, Stonehenge discovery could rewrite British pre-history.

More on the discovery: 6,000-year-old encampment found in dig by University of Buckingham.

TPM, Ohio Town Orders Man To Take Down Zombie Nativity Scene.

Raw Story, Indiana lawmaker pushing bill to insulate government Nativity scenes from atheist legal ‘threats’

Raw Story, Ayn Rand helped the FBI investigate whether ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ was commie propaganda.

Have a wonderful holiday everyone, and please leave a comment and/or a link if you’re so inclined. 

 


Saturday Reads: Winter Solstice Edition

Beaghmore Stone Circles, Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone, North Ireland

Beaghmore Stone Circles, Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone, North Ireland

Good Morning!!

Today is the Winter Soltice, the shortest day of the year. In the eastern U.S. the solstice will take place around noon, according to blogger Scott Dance at the Baltimore Sun.

The Earth’s axis tilts at a 23.5-degree angle, which is what brings the seasons, and at the point of the winter solstice, the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun. Starting Saturday afternoon, the tilt will begin shifting upright until the Vernal Equinox.

The solstice marks the start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, of course. Although the hemisphere reaches its furthest from the sun Saturday, the coldest weather lags a month or two, with January and February, on average, colder than December here.

At the solstice, the Arctic circle is in 24-hour darkness, while it Antarctica is in full sunlight.

The moment of transition to winter has already been welcomed with a traditional ceremony at Stonehenge. BBC News:

Kate Davies, who manages Stonehenge for English Heritage, said: “We were delighted to welcome over 3,500 people to Stonehenge to celebrate winter solstice.

“The wind and the rain did not dampen the celebration. And the ancient stone circle was filled with the sound of song, drumming and chanting….

Claire, a pagan from Bristol, attended the event with her seven-year-old daughter. She said: “We arrived at 5.30am – it’s a wonderful place. You don’t have to be pagan to enjoy it – even the weather won’t put you off.”

Newgrange is a neolithic burial mound, older than the pyramids, located in Ireland. Photograph: Alamy

Newgrange is a neolithic burial mound, older than the pyramids, located in Ireland. Photograph: Alamy

From the Irish Independent: Hundreds gather at Newgrange for winter solstice celebration.

John Cantwell, (49), a healer and member of Sli an Chri or “Pathway of the Heart”, from Dublin, heralded the first ray of sun by blowing on handmade horn fashioned from a bull and ram’s horn as part of a large group of New Age and pagan celebrants who formed human circles linking hands at the base of the monument.

“Our ancestors who built this temple thousands of years ago were great astronomers and they knew something about the sun. I’ve been coming here for years and the majority of times, irrespective of the weather in Dublin or Belfast, the horizon is clear and we get an extraordinary experience of the sun like we do right now,” he said.

“It’s difficult to feel in any way negative about anything right now,” he told the Sunday Independent.

Sun coming up the passage during the winter solstice at Newgrange Tomb. Photograph: National Monuments Service

Sun coming up the passage during the winter solstice at Newgrange Tomb. Photograph: National Monuments Service

Here’s some background on Newgrange from the Guardian:

Compared to the vast crowds of druids and pagans expected to gather at Stonehenge on Saturday 21 December to celebrate the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice event at Newgrange tomb in County Meath, Ireland is a rather exclusive affair. Just 120 people get the privilege of standing inside the monument to witness the remarkable illumination that occurs when a beam of sunlight shoots down into the narrow corridor that leads into the chamber, flooding the entire 19-metre stone passage in a warm orange light.

The people who built this neolithic structure over 5,000 years ago were evidently keen timekeepers. Above the entrance to the Newgrange tomb, which takes the form of a large grass-covered mound, is a small “roof box” that is aligned to the rising sun, a piece of design believed to have functioned in the past as an indicator of the new year. And for six days each year, around the winter solstice, the effect is at its peak.

The article lists some other sites where the Solstice is celebrated, including the Great Serpent Mound in Southern Ohio.

Finally, in Iran the winter solstice is marked by an “ancient tradition” linked to Mithra, the sun god. LA Times:

The winter solstice may mark the longest night of the year, but for Iranians, it’s also known as Shab-e Yalda, a celebration with ancient ties that commemorates the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.

Feasting on fresh fruits from the summer season and reciting works by 14th century Persian poet Hafez, Iranians all around the world stay up to mark the start of winter.

“It’s not an official holiday in Iran, but similar to many other ancient traditions, it has become a significant cultural celebration observed by all Iranians,” said Bita Milanian, executive director of Farhang Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates Iranian art and culture in Southern California.

The celebration, which translates to “Night of Birth,” has come to symbolize many things for Iranians, said Touraj Daryaee, a UC Irvine professor of Iranian studies.

“This is part of Iranian tradition where evil will run havoc on the longest night of the year,” he said. “So people gather to be together until evil is gone… it’s an old idea where you need protection from evil.”

When the sun rises, light shines and goodness prevails, he said.

In other news,

President Obama said yesterday that the revelations about NSA surveillance programs have “damaged America’s security and intelligence gathering capabilities.”

The president’s year-end press conference was sprinkled with laughter and seasonal well-wishing and covered Obamacare’s poor rollout, the health-care program overall, reasons for his planned absence from the Olympic Games in Sochi – and whether his sagging poll numbers reflected his “worst year” as president. But questions about surveillance and privacy resurfaced throughout.

Obama was asked how he viewed the NSA’s mass surveillance programs after a momentous week in which a presidential panel recommended scores of major changes, CEOs of Internet companies implored him to rein in the NSA, and a federal judge ruled that an NSA program that collects “metadata” on every American phone call likely is unconstitutional.

Referring specifically to the NSA’s metadata program, which stores data on every phone call made in America for five years, Obama defended the program while also promising to change it….

“It’s important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it’s been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data,” he continued. “But what is also clear is from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse. And I think that’s what the judge and the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA Court, we’re taking those into account.”

Obama is now on vacation in Hawaii.

J.J. sent me some weather news this morning: Big storm hitting U.S. this weekend. Once again, the bad weather is mostly in the South and Midwest. From EarthSky:

A monster storm system will affect millions of people in the United States during the weekend of December 21-22, 2013. It’s expected to produce a wide range of nasty weather – including severe thunderstorms, flooding, snow, and ice. If you’re in the eastern half of the United States, you will feel the full force of this storm either at home or if you plan on traveling this weekend. A potential severe weather outbreak is also possible across the U.S. Southeast from Louisiana into Mississippi and Arkansas. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has already been hit hard with significant icing across Oklahoma City and into Tulsa.

The local National Weather Service offices have been busy issuing plenty of watches and warnings all across the United States. Flood watches extend from the U.S. mid-South all the way into the Ohio River Valley.

There are four threats with this storm system. One of those threats has already occurred overnight across parts of Oklahoma as freezing rain fell (and as of Saturday morning, continues to fall) across a large part of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Read more at the link.

The amborella flower hides a family history of sex and gluttony, according to an analysis of its mitochondrial DNA. (Sangtae Kim / Sungshin Women's University )

The amborella flower hides a family history of sex and gluttony, according to an analysis of its mitochondrial DNA. (Sangtae Kim / Sungshin Women’s University )

Here’s an interesting science story for you. From the LA Times: Sex, gluttony and hoarding marked evolution of flowering plants.

Never mind the selfish gene – the cellular family history of the oldest living species of flowering plants is marked by enough sex and gluttony to earn a place in Shakespeare’s folio.

The powerhouse organelles inside cells of Amborella trichopoda, a woody shrub that grows only in the humid jungles of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, gobbled up and retained the entire genome from the equivalent organelles of four different species, three of algae and one of moss, according to a study of the plant’s mitochondrial DNA published this week in the journal Science.

The results are the product of a years-long effort to sequence the full genome of the plant, a crucial step in solving what Charles Darwin once called “the abominable mystery” — the sudden flourishing long ago of several hundred thousand species of flowering plants.

An analysis of the nuclear DNA of the species, published in the same edition of Science, revealed that the plant is the equivalent of the animal kingdom’s duck-billed platypus — a solitary sister left behind more than 100 million years ago by what became a panoply of flowering, or fruiting, plants.

Read the rest at the link. More from Science Recorder: Oldest flowering plant genome explains Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’

One question that plagued Darwin was why flowers suddenly proliferated on Earth millions of years ago. He referred to it as an “abominable mystery.” A new study published in Science by the Amborella Genome Sequencing Project decodes the DNA of the oldest living relative of those flowers, the Amborella. It grows natively in 18 spots and its reproductive organs are closed in by tepals, a hybrid between petals and sepals, Nature explains. It is also the only species in its genus, family and order, making it unique specimen to study.

The flower is the only link to the ancient flowers that covered the planet and is helping scientists understand the evolutionary processes that led to the 300,000 species of flowers that currently cover Earth.

“In the same way that the genome sequence of the platypus — a survivor of an ancient lineage — can help us study the evolution of all mammals, the genome sequence of Amborella can help us learn about the evolution of all flowers,” said Victor Albert of the University at Buffalo in a press release.

By comparing the genome of Amborella with other plants scientists were able to determine that about 200 million years ago a genome doubling event occurred that allowed the plants to take on new functions, such as flowering. They believe that the genome doubling may also have led to the diversification and spread of different species of flowers.

I’ll wrap this up with a couple of reactions to the Duck Dynasty kerfluffle.

This one from ABC News goes in the “Duh!” file: Phil Robertson and A&E Fight Not About 1st Amendment, Expert Says.

Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the issue is not actually a First Amendment violation.

“The First Amendment, like the constitution generally, only applies to the government, so if the government stops someone from talking or punishes them, that’s a First Amendment issue. If a private person says I won’t hire you or let you be on TV anymore, that’s not,” Roosevelt said.

“The idea is we don’t let the government decide what’s a good opinion, but we do let individuals decide what they think is offensive and what should be rewarded and what should be discouraged. That’s the way the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work,” he said.

Roosevelt also pointed out that the U.S. has anti-discrimination laws that bar a company from firing someone for their race or religion, but allow it to fire someone if they have opinions the company doesn’t like.

“There’s a line that is difficult to draw between religious beliefs and religiously motivated conduct, but what the Supreme Court has said is you can’t treat people differently because of their beliefs but if those beliefs lead them to engage in certain actions, you can treat them like someone who had engaged in those actions for a nonreligious belief,” he said.

It’s really too bad that people like Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin need an expert to explain how the first amendment works.

And from Darren Leonard Hutchinson at Dissenting Justice: Duck Dynasty and Discrimination: Firing Phil Robertson Will Not Advance Gay Rights Or Racial Justice! I’ll let you read Hutchinson’s argument at his blog.

Those are my offerings for today. What stories are you focusing on? Please post your recommended links in the comment thread.

Happy Winter Solstice!!