The Mayan Calendar Mystery
If the world doesn’t end, winter begins
With any luck, Friday, December 21 will not mark the end of the world, but rather the usual beginning of winter for the Northern Hemisphere. The Mayans and their vanished civilization are a true mystery, made all the more poignant by their accomplishments, building great pyramids and devising an elaborate calendar. That calendar, like those of other civilizations throughout history and around the globe, recognizes December 21 as the end of the year — and the beginning of the new.
We call it solstice, meaning sun standing still. But today we know that it is not the sun halting its motion but rather earth’s own wobbly spin as it orbits the sun. Earth rotates on a 231⁄2 -degree axis, and on the 21st each year, the south pole directly faces the sun, bathing the Southern Hemisphere in its greatest amount of daylight while casting the least light on the Northern Hemisphere. Slowly the earth then begins its tilt the other way, bringing a return of light.
As for the Mayans predicting this year’s solstice as the end of all time, who knows. They are long gone. Perhaps they couldn’t foresee a time in the future further than their own history trailed into the past. I explain it to my children, ages 11 and 12, as more akin to our own recent end of the millennium and the doom-sayers it brought out. Yes, it’s a significant milestone in our calculation of time. But regardless of us and our calendars, the next day the earth continue on its path around the sun.
These long nights are good for sky watching, if you can bear winter’s chill. With little if any humidity in the air, the stars and planets shine in crisp relief on a clear night. Even as the setting sun lingers, Jupiter appears in the east, with orange Aldebaran a few degrees below and the miniature dipper-shaped Pleiades a little above. All are visible until dawn, by which time Saturn rises, followed by brilliant Venus and even fleeting Mercury just ahead of the sun.