The darkness that descends over the Rim country on winter nights comes early, especially in the canyons and below the mesas. Cowboys camping out during the roundups were grateful for a bright moon or at least the starlight. Travelers by horse or wagon squinted through the blackness to see the trail or catch a glimpse of light from a ranch-house window.
Like most animals, human beings live by the sun. When the sun shines less, something in our body's time clock slows down and we need more sleep than usual. Winter is the time for hibernation.
It is easy to understand how sun worship has been the most common form of religious expression since humankind began.
Ancient people in the Northern Hemisphere built centers for astronomy to catch the sun at its lowest arc in the southern sky, marking the beginning of its return north.
In the Rim country, where Indian ruins pepper the hilltops and mesas, we are aware that observatories were often built into the pueblos of the ancient people.
We find holes in a wall or a rock, lined up to catch the sun's rays and focus them on an opposite wall when the sun rises Dec. 21.
An archaeologist has located a circle of rocks near Heber that is designed as one of these ancient observatories.
Everywhere human records have been left, we find this need to know the winter solstice has come, darkness is going to be overcome by light, and the seasons have turned the corner again.
This universal celebration of the victory of light over darkness, is also the victory of life over death and joy over gloom.
In the Middle Ages, the feudal lords expressed a seasonal goodwill by opening their castles. The tables were filled with food and everyone of high or low estate was invited in to a sumptuous feast and a warm hearth.
That celebration continues today as neighbors come and go to each other's open houses and Christmas parties to share tables of food and good cheer.
The shopping malls have become the castles, hosting a festival for all who will come, low and high estate alike.
While Christians have no corner on this universal celebration, we add a special twist to it. We have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ at this time, the Advent of God into the world to signal the victory of light over darkness, goodness over evil, life over death, and peace to all who believe.
It seems that the light show is over all too soon.
At our house, the lights usually come down on New Year's Day. We take down the tree ornaments and lights, label the boxes and put them back on their out-of-the-way shelves.
The streets are darkened at night again, except for the headlights of commuter autos morning and evening. No luminaries invite us in for shelter and wassail beside a warm hearth. Just the flicker of TV tubes emanating from the windows. It's as though people turn in on themselves again.
The Christmas party with carols and family love suddenly turns into the raucous New Year's Eve party. Perhaps people have to brace themselves to go out into the darkness once more.
Did you ever wonder why Dec. 21, which is the shortest day of the year, is not the coldest? Why does the coldest weather come in January and February? If the sun had triumphed over the dark, why does the thermometer continue its downward plunge? Why is there a long, cold winter ahead? It is because the land and oceans have stored heat over the previous summer and fall, and that heat is still being released.
Recall how you stay warm for a few minutes after leaving a warm house before the cold gets to you. In the same way, it takes the Earth awhile to feel the cold.
As the days lengthen we receive more warmth from the sun, but it is not enough to make up for the continuing heat loss. The incoming heat won't match the outflow until late in February.
Something similar has happened in the world with the coming of Jesus. God comes to us in this unique, personal way: the Christmas baby. We call him the Prince of Peace, the one who brings light and life.
Why then do we have this bitter winter of war and pain and suffering? Because as the influence of Jesus spreads through those who follow him, it is not yet enough to make up for the continuing loss of light and love through human evil.
The hope of Christians is that late in the February of our human history, the balance will be struck and goodness will grow to overcome evil.
So from Back When a baby was born in Bethlehem, this columnist wishes for you the hope and joy and peace that Christmas is designed to bring.