“Show me a prison, show me a jail,
“Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
And there but for fortune, go you or I
“Show me the alley, show me the train,
Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, go you or I.
— Phil Ochs, American folksinger (1940-1976)
The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol “sun” and sistere “stand still.” Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the longest nights and shortest days of the year. Late dawns. Early sunsets. Short days. Long nights. This year, the 2020 December solstice moment — when the sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky and stops — is Monday at 5:02 a.m. here on Cape Cod.
In the history of Western Civilization, tomorrow morning, Dec. 21, has, for thousands of years, marked one of the most important days of the year. Our primitive ancestors noticed that, as the fall months arrived and winter approached, the sun got lower in the sky, the weather got colder, the days got shorter and the nights longer.
At places like Stonehenge and other primitive structures, humans began to mark the departure of the sun from their environment as the daytime shadows and the darkness grew longer. With great fear and anxiety, they watched the sun get lower and lower as it appeared to approach a place where it would disappear, which, of course, would mean the end of human life on earth. But then, every year, on Dec. 21, a miracle occurred: the sun began to stop moving lower and lower in the sky. The shadows of the stone markers got shorter, the days began to get longer as the nights grew shorter, and the weather began to become less cold.
They noticed that some trees did not die, but kept their leaves — evergreens (holly, ivy, cedar, fir, spruce, etc., and these trees were kept as holy, and were decorated with lights and bright colors in celebration. Traditional holidays such as Christmas, New Year, and Hanukkah began to cluster around the end of December.
The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council view Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day as an occasion to remember those who have died. The event is traditionally held across the country on the longest night of the year – Dec. 21.
For the past several years here on Cape Cod, a brief assembly has met on the Hyannis Village Green followed by a memorial service across the street at the Federated Church. But, due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s memorial will take place in socially distanced and virtual ways.
From 9 a.m. and into the evening of Dec. 21, people are invited to walk a path in contemplation and prayer as they visit memorial signs that are placed in a socially distanced manner on the Hyannis Village Green. Signs designed by the students of St. John Paul II High School, note the names of our neighbors who died this past year. A brief prerecorded service that includes a reading of the names of those who have died can be accessed at 9 a.m. on Monday on the Cape Cod Synagogue’s YouTube channel: Synagogue Events — YouTube. People can listen to this service as they visit the signs, or in a location of their choosing.
Co-sponsors of this memorial include: Barnstable Police Department’s Community Impact Unit, Cape Cod Council of Churches, Cape Cod Synagogue, Champ Homes, Duffy Health Center, Federated Church of Hyannis, Housing Assistance Corp., South Congregational Church and “Here Now Ministries,” St. John Paul II High School, Team M25 Homeless Outreach, Vinfen, and the Youth StreetReach Program of the Council of Churches.
The number of homeless and needy who die each year varies, of course. This year’s tally is about 30. To most of you, these people were strangers, but to those of us who work with the homeless and the needy, they are people with names and with histories: Tommy, Edith, Billy, Karen, Tex, Mary, Kelly, etc., etc. We knew these people; we have held them in our arms and watched the tears dry on their faces. We have seen despair in their eyes, hopelessness in their voices.
We have driven them to Kmart and had them pick out new pairs of winter boots or jackets and then gone outside to the parking lot and deposited the torn, ragged old shoes or clothing into the trash cans there.
We have given them gift cards for Dunkin’ Donuts, Stop & Shop and McDonald’s to buy food or other necessities.
We have sat with them on park benches until our fingers and even the coffee in the paper cups grew cold as we listened to their stories: stories of poverty, child abuse, divorce, poverty, disease, orphanage, and, yes, bad luck or fortune.
They were all once little children finding it hard to sleep on Christmas Eve and rushing to open little gifts the next morning. They wrote letters to Santa. They were loved and snuggled by people who cared for them: parents, aunts and uncles, teachers. As little boys and girls, they had hopes and dreams of being firefighters, police officers, nurses or schoolteachers. Just like you. And then something went wrong. Something beyond their control. And they wound up sleeping in cranberry bogs, abandoned houses and by the railroad tracks on Cape Cod. A lot of things can go wrong in life. You’re old enough to know that.
Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year. Please remember these people as you snuggle into your blankets, warm and safe.
Dan McCullough is a Cape Cod Times columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org