From the December 14, 1979 Reflections of That Man Friday column by William A. Caldwell:

A strange and reassuring thing happened off to the southwest at 4:11 p.m. Monday, just in time to safeguard the sanity of a man confronted with a stack of Christmas cards.

They were the cards that would have to go into the mail early so as to make certain their delivery in far corners of the earth next week. They were a problem. What does one say to Dr. X, whom one hasn’t seen in eight or is it 35 years, or Miss Y, who is on our list because we’re on her list? These are people who report to us annually in the form of multigraphed minutes — and then we went to Hawaii, and then Junior got his PhD, and then Charles fell off the roof and broke his leg, and then and then and then — and it would seem and be curt to respond with the equivalent of “Well, Merry Christmas anyway.”

You have to say something that’ll sound relaxed and chummy and hot-buttered-rummy, and you cannot be sure that if it comes out sounding too hohoho it won’t embitter the recipient. For all you know he or she just blew a gasket in the alimentary canal, or the house burned down, or the spouse ran off with the choir director. Anything that can happen to anybody can happen to the people on your Christmas card list in the course of a year. Somewhere the services are about to begin. Wipe that ridiculous grin off your prose.

So what does one say? Let’s get back to what happened a little after midafternoon Monday.

The sun set at 4:11 p.m., that’s what happened, and that’s the earliest it will set this year and, until next Christmastide, over the year to come. By the end of the week it will be setting at 4:12, by the end of the month at 4:20. The afternoons are lengthening.

To be sure, the days won’t start getting longer until Christmas week, For reasons I do not understand and don’t want to hear explained, the sun will rise later and later until mid-January. In that the winter solstice will occur at 6:10 a.m. Dec. 22, this seems odd. The solstice, when winter begins, occurs when the sun is at its farthest point south of the horizon off South Beach. What I do not dig is why the afternoon sun is heading north and the morning sun is going south. Has something to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis, they tell me, but the astronomers’ vocabulary is as inscrutable as the poetry in The New Yorker, and when I turn to science written for my 11-year-old mind I find, in the rev. Book of Knowledge, such guff as this:

“Can we think, as some have dared to do, that the wonderful machinery of the seasons, producing such a variety of conditions so admirably suited to our needs, is due to mere accident? This little tilt in the earth’s axis to which we owe the seasons may be thought of as the deliberate work of an immeasurable and beneficent Intelligence, a part of the great eternal scheme, involving all, and in a whole uniting.”

I’d like to suggest that our needs are admirably suited to the conditions and that it’s an accident indeed that we’ve adapted and survived so far, but let’s not argue about it. The winter solstice is upon us, and January and February, the grisly 5 a.m. of the year, are dead ahead, and the wind shrieking and the plates of ice grinding on the water and the sting of sleet, but as of 4:11 o’clock Monday afternoon, there was a little more sunlight on the earth than there’d been the day before. And it became possible to reach for a stack of Christmas cards and start scribbling frantically. A man has something to communicate. He couldn’t wait to tell it to far corners of the earth.

It was this:

From now on it’s all up grade to summertime. After the solstice, once we see that the sunrise today pops out of the sea a step north of where it was yesterday and the sunset is a little to the right of yonder house or dune or pine rather than behind it, then all the ancient error and doubt are behind us. Everything’s going to be all right.

Shelley said it better: “The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,/If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But it takes a little while to acquire optimism, which is not a hope or a bet or a prayer that things will be better but a certainty. Shelley asked a question. The inspector of sunsets can give you the answer and prove it.

In the wide world and on this little Island it’s going to be a grim winter, and is there any other kind? People will vanish into the snow, and innocents will suffer and die for the greater glory of some deity they never heard of, and there’ll be times when it’ll be hard to avoid suspecting that this species is another experiment that Nature should sweep off her workbench to make room for another and another and another. For goodness’ sake spread the word. Pass it along. As of 4:11 p.m. Monday it’s all up grade to summertime. Don’t have to wait and see. Tonight the sun will set at 4:12. Everything’s going to be all right.

Compiled by Hilary Wall