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Stretching out the daylight

 It’s easy to miss the majesty of the solstice, lost as we are in holiday visits and shopping and decorations and all the dodges we use to suppress our ancient nightmare that the sun is leaving us forever in these days of early darkness.

We set out cheery red poinsettias, string doors and rooftops with twinkling lights, place candles in windows and set logs ablaze in our fireplaces. It is all primitive; the tricks of latter-day cavemen desperate to chase away the dark and persuade the sun to return.

Being something of a latter-day caveman myself, I used to start in early November counting the days, not to Christmas or the New Year, but to that magic day when the afternoons would at last begin to lengthen. With the happy ignorance of the scientifically uneducated, I understood that Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight, and cheerfully assumed that the sun would begin to rise earlier and to set later on that precise day. My theory was that such dogged counting made it easier to get through the dreariness of early darkness.

Such was my theory, which held firm until I mentioned it to a friend who also felt the weight of winter’s gloom. “Relax,” I said, “in just x more days it will be Dec. 21 and the sun will start coming up earlier.”

“No it won’t,” she protested. “It keeps coming up later every morning.”

“Nonsense,” I replied with a far-too-patronizing air. “Everyone knows Dec. 21 is the shortest day. After that the days get longer.”

“No they don’t,” she insisted. “It’s darker every morning until the middle of January.”

I attributed her mistake to her basic skepticism about my scientific prowess.

“You’re mistaken,” I calmly replied. “Here, I’ll get the almanac and show you.”

The peculiar belief that the books will prove me correct is a character fault that dates back to my boyhood, when I bet a friend that the border between the U.S. and Mexico was the Panama Canal, and hauled down the Atlas to prove it. It is amazing how often those books are wrong. The Atlas wrongly showed the Rio Grande as the border, and the almanac now wrongly showed the sun rising later every damned day right through Jan. 4.

“I’ll write the publisher,” I said. “Can’t believe they made a mistake like that!”

“But it’s not a mistake! I drive to work that time every morning right into the sunrise and the clock’s right on my dashboard!”

If there’s anything more fatal to a good theory, it’s having somebody come up with a nasty, ugly fact like that. I reeled from the blow.

Later, in secret, I looked it up on the Internet. Alas, there it was in full electronic certitude: the sunrise hereabouts on Dec. 21 is at 7:15 a.m. and a week later it’s at 7:17 and a week later still it’s at 7:18.

I brooded over that unhappy news for a week before it dawned on me (forgive the pun), that if Dec. 21 really is the shortest day of the year even though the sun comes up later for weeks after, then the only explanation could be that the sunset was coming later also, so that what we lost in morning daylight was more than offset by lengthening afternoons. And so it was!

In fact, I discovered a bonus. Because the day on which the sun sets earliest isn’t Dec. 21 either; this year it’s Dec. 9; this very week when it set at 4:34 p.m. It will hang there until Dec. 12, when the daylight lingers a minute longer in the afternoon. Why, by Dec. 21 we’ll have gained four whole afternoon minutes! Turns out the world isn’t quite precisely round; I believe it’s a touch egg-shaped, about which the Almanac is suspiciously silent. Wonder if they know it?

We come now, my friends, to the fundamental question of your identity. Which are you – a morning person or an afternoon person? If you are one of those fanatics who get up before the civilized world, I can do nothing for you. But if you are looking for a peep more daylight coming home from work in the afternoon, then take heart; your life has already begun to improve.

Joe Wilkins is an author, semi-retired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville. You can email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , see his website at www.josephtwilkins.com , or follow him on Twitter @jtwilkins001.


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