December 21, the winter solstice, marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. But not many of us will notice. After all, the sun has been gradually setting earlier and earlier for some months now. So what? It gets dark, we switch on the lights.
We take the sun for granted here in the Southwest. We get way more of it than we want most of the year. In fact, we welcome gray skies with the promise of snow as Christmas approaches.
Our ancestors didn't take the sun for granted. It governed every aspect of their lives, their very survival. I've tried to imagine what those long winter nights were like, with only the glow of a campfire to light often moonless and starless nights, huddled together for warmth, waiting for the passing of the longest night, for the symbolic death of darkness and the joyous rebirth of the sun.
I thought about these things the other day as I decorated my house with Christmas lights, the modern version of a ritual celebrated for thousands of years by our kind, first with fire, then candles, oil lamps and finally electric lights.
It's strange, though. You'd think that since electricity banished darkness, the tradition of Christmas lights would have lost its appeal. On the contrary. The degree of excess is astounding. The National Christmas Tree at the capitol in Washington D.C. is 48 feet tall and sports 125,000 lights, which take 75,000 watts of power. It's surrounded by 56 smaller lighted trees, representing the nation's states and protectorates.
Closer to home, the holiday display, "Zoo Lights," at the Phoenix Wildlife World Zoo boasts 500,000 lights. Cities and towns everywhere have similar displays, thousands and thousands of them.
Each year, homes are decked out with more and more elaborate displays. Neighborhoods have competitions. Some have Santa Claus Lanes that attract thousands of spectators. What a trip it would be to ride with Santa Claus and his reindeer on Christmas Eve and view the dazzling planet from space.
The yearly decorating frenzy is like joining a crowd of happy revelers parading down the street with their voices rising in a crescendo of song. And why not? It gives us so much pleasure. So what if the APS bill is a little higher in January?
Actually, it may be more serious than a higher bill. Maybe you've seen the news reports from California about their power woes with headlines like "Christmas bulbs dimmer this year: Residents asked to temper lighting displays." The 56-foot white fir Christmas tree in Sacramento had to be unplugged. Why? They say it's because of greater demand, too many people, deregulation, market problems. It's more complicated than that, but the point is clear enough.
Arizona utilities are worried, too, the news reports say. Not just about electricity, but natural gas is scarce, as well. The northern parts of the country are hurting. I sense all this is more than the annual cycle of winter weather. Could it be just the faintest warning of something more threatening?
I don't mean to be an alarmist. But I wonder, what if something happened to our power grids, not just locally, but everywhere? What if something, or a bunch of somethings, started to tip the dominos? How big a crisis would it take to make us give up our beloved Christmas lights? What would that do to a world dependent for survival on a fragile tapestry woven out of billions of miles of electrical cords? What would it be like to be plunged into darkness with no assurance that power would return? How would we feel about the sun then?
In ancient times, humans worshiped the sun as the primary source of life. Maybe it's time for us in this more enlightened age to respect the sun as our primary source of power and put it to work.
Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or by e-mail at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.