In a year that had so little to look forward to, it promised to be a once-in-a-millennium celestial spectacle. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest worlds in our solar system, would appear almost as one in the night sky. And not just any night sky: the event would take place on the Winter Solstice. The combined planets would form a star so bright that many believed it was the one the wise men had followed to the city of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. The name itself — the Great Conjunction — promised a kind of togetherness that has been sorely lacking on our woebegone earth for almost a year now.
I cut a path on the afternoon of the Solstice through a foot of freshly fallen snow to the top of our upper field. Later, about an hour after sunset, I set out into the frigid dusk. A half moon followed me through the trees and cast an otherworldly sheen over the fields as I climbed. When I reached the top of the hill I stopped, adjusting my binoculars, and faced southwest above the tree line where I was told to look. I found clouds instead. Not even storm clouds. Just a blanket of everyday condensed water vapor thick enough to obscure the horizon.
Directly above me, though, stars gleamed. And through the trees I could see the distant lights of my neighbors’ windows. Somewhere, as might have been the case in Bethlehem, the planets were aligning. In the darkest night of this darkest of years a kind of miracle was unfolding. Just one that not everybody was destined to see.
Here’s a poem on the subject with a final stanza that I particularly recommend.
Toward the Winter Solstice
by Timothy Steele
Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.
Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.
Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.
And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red.
Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.