Dreaming of a White(-Sand) Christmas


Ah, Christmastime approaches again… and you know what that means, don't you?

Yes, that's right, all those great traditions—Santa Claus, reindeer, presents under the tree, putting on bikinis and swim trunks and heading down to the beach for a festive seafood barbie with family and friends.

Beaches, bikinis and barbeques? Personally, I've never associated these things with the holiday season (except during those familial visits to south Florida, where it's beach weather all year). But here in Australia, this is the Christmas norm. December in the southern hemisphere marks the beginning of summer, not winter—which explains my friend Benjamin's horrible sunburn from the other day out at Bondi Beach (pictured above) in Sydney, and why a 'white Christmas' is something Aussies must either go abroad to enjoy or experience secondhand via the gobs of American TV programs filling the airwaves here.

Last week's meditation on the inextricable connection between time and space, inspired by the disorienting occasion of crossing the International Date Line, logically leads to more such meditation. As an astrologer, I'm particularly struck by the ramifications of this hemispheric reversal of season for the study of astrology. After all, when I set out to explain the symbolic meaning of, say, Aries, the zodiac sign associated with birthdays from March 21 to April 19, I often parallel its initiatory, action-oriented energy to the 'first burst of spring' feeling that corresponds to the season when the Sun is located there. In the northern hemisphere, that is. Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, Aries time falls at the beginning of autumn, and Libra is the sign that matches up with spring on the calendar.

One part of the world celebrates Summer Solstice around June 22, while the other does so in the vicinity of December 22, next Monday here in Australia. At which time, in San Francisco, it's Winter Solstice. All of this makes logical sense, except for the fact that astrologers have long derived symbolism for the signs from their seasonal correspondences. Leo, the Sun-ruled sign of warmth and fun-loving creative expression, is oft compared with its ruler's high-in-the-sky and powerfully hot position during the height of summer, July 23 to August 22. Meanwhile, its opposing sign Aquarius is thought to be an intellectual visionary but somewhat 'chilly' in emotional affect, matching the cold weather of its wintry domain, January 20 to February 18. How then do astrologers account symbolically for the reversal 'down under', which places warm Leo in mid-winter and chilly Aquarius smack dab in blistering summer?

There is no doubt, historically speaking, that astrology is predicated on a northern-hemisphere-centric body of knowledge. The cultures from which astrology was born—Babylonian, Egyptian, Hindu, Greek, Chinese, Tibetan—all derive from north of the equator. Thus, it isn't surprisingly that traditional astrological symbolism is colored strongly by the progression of the seasons as lived in the northern hemisphere.

For residents of the earth's southern half, this sort of geographic bias is something they're accustomed to, unfortunate though true, and it extends beyond just astrology, to such other riveting areas of interest as whether water goes down the drain a different direction based upon which hemisphere you're in. (Known as the 'coriolis effect', this topic seems to be the only aspect of southern hemisphere life that obsessively interests Americans, perhaps due to lots of bad junior-high science teachers telling us about it, though the theory in fact doesn't 'hold water'. Read more here.)

Having identified that a bias exists (not hard to do), the bigger question becomes: How do practitioners of astrology in the southern hemisphere adapt a system, developed by others elsewhere for a different seasonal calendar, to their own purposes? Of course, there is no simple answer to the question—for just as every single astrologer, regardless of where he/she lives, provides a unique interpretation to a chart though all the planetary placements are the same (and every reader brings different meaning to any single set of words in a poem or story), so too must southern-hemi planet-gazers make astrology work their own way, through a combination of intuitive insight and creative visioning. Australian astrologer Milton Black, for instance, designed his own 'Dreamtime Zodiac' specifically for his nation, using native animals like the koala and the dingo as symbols for the different birth months.

Many southern hemisphere pagans have taken to celebrating the sabbats (or holidays) according to their own seasons, so that Samhain, traditionally associated with Halloween, is instead commemorated at the end of April, while Beltane (or 'May Day') is observed around November 1 rather than May 1. This switch ensures that these celebrations of earth-centered spirituality remain aligned to what's actually happening with the flora and fauna and the climate at the time. Obviously, this leads some Australian pagan-astrologers such as Caroline Tully to call for a southern-hemisphere reversal of the zodiac as well—starting Aries in September and Libra in March—to keep the symbolism in line with the actual seasons. While this idea has some merit, it falls apart when we imagine those births occurring near the Equator. Under Tully's proposed system, if two births take place on January 1 in two towns located only a few kilometers apart, one north of the Equator and one south, one baby would be a Sun-sign Capricorn, while the other would be a Cancer. A convoluted prospect, indeed.

To me, the most workable solution simply involves tweaking the seasonal symbolism associated with each sign. In such a scenario, Aries is still involved with initiatory energy, although if linked to the beginning of fall instead of spring, it can be said to provide the burst necessary to set the leaves falling in order to clear the old and prepare for the new. Leo's warming fire becomes more hearth-like, keeping us comfortable and full of love through the winter's cold, while Aquarius, ruled by the electrical god Uranus, gets connected with those sudden summer thunderstorms found in many parts of the southern hemisphere. My examples are not well thought out and rudimentary at best, due in large part to the fact that I'm not a resident of this part of the world. On this pondering of alternate zodiac symbolism, I'll gladly defer to those with more personal experience, the southern hemisphere astrologers themselves.

Ultimately, the zodiac signs themselves—and the symbolism connected to them—are manmade constructs, so, in a certain sense, it isn't even that important which system a practitioner uses, no matter where he/she lives. After all, the western astrology I use is based on the tropical zodiac, an 'imaginary' circle in the sky split into twelve equal wedges. Other astrologers, including those of the Vedic tradition, use an entirely different referent—the sidereal zodiac, aligned more exactly with the actual stellar constellations. These two zodiacs vary by almost an entire sign; yet, both systems work quite well for their respective adherents.

To some skeptics, this is evidence that the whole of astrology is bunk. I see it more as a confirmation that any self-contained system can be equally as useful for getting to the same understanding—whether Aries marks spring or fall, whether kangaroos or archers describe those born in December—just as any number of religious or spiritual philosophies are equally adept at bringing their followers closer to the divine. It is what we as practitioners do with our chosen symbols, what we project onto them from our cultures, how we view them in relation to one another within a closed system, what questions we ask and how deeply we go for the answers, that helps us reach additional insight into our lives.