All Over Creation: Solstice Savings Time
How A Christmas Carol and Interstellar instruct us in surviving the holidays
Christmas is a black hole.
Now, before those of you with a bent toward humbuggery at this time of year interpret that as endorsing your curmudgeonly view of the yule as a midnight pit of insufferable family gatherings, crass commercialism, and an unrelenting loop of carols played by Mannheim Steamroller, let me say that that declaration contains no Grinchitude; "black hole" isn't used in the "of Calcutta" sense. No, I draw my metaphor from astronomy, from those superdense celestial objects with gravitational fields so powerful that nothing can escape them, not even light. One plays a prominent supporting role in Interstellar, and seeing Christopher Nolan's film got me musing about time – specifically, the way that time dilates the closer you stray to a black hole.
Since I'm no Neil deGrasse Tyson, much less a John Wheeler (the theoretical physicist who made "black hole" the hip term for "gravitationally completely collapsed star" – though I may have taken a class from him way back when at UT), my grasp of the phenomenon isn't the most elegant or sophisticated, but I understand it to work like this: Say I'm watching Matthew McConaughey fall into a black hole (resisting impulse to insert film title here). The closer he gets to it, the more he looks to me to be slowing down, and if I can see his watch, it'll appear to be running slower as well. That's because the gravity, which intensifies as Matthew gets closer to the black hole, is making it harder and harder for light to fight its way back to my eyes. The light is what's slowing, not him. Just before he hits the event horizon – essentially, the black hole's surface and the point of no return for Matthew or anything else, including photons – light's taking so long to get to me that what I see resembles a freeze frame: Matthew stuck just this side of the event horizon, not moving, his watch stopped. And he'll appear that way forever.
As I listened to McConaughey and Anne Hathaway chatter on about this effect and saw a timepiece play an increasingly important part in the story, I flashed back on Zach Theatre's new version of A Christmas Carol. Scenic designer Bob Lavellee makes clocks the dominant image on the set, with gigantic clock faces and gears framing the stage and clocks suspended against the rear wall, all of it serving to focus our attention on the significance of time in the tale: the chiming that signals the arrival of the spirits; their representation of the past, present, and future; the Spirit of Christmas Present aging a lifetime in a day; the implication that for the ailing Tiny Tim, time's running out. Time moves oddly here, as in Interstellar, with the visitations of three nights speeding by in one.
But then time always seems to move peculiarly in this season. What kid hasn't experienced time slowing down in the days leading up to Christmas? Don't you remember how each day seemed to take longer and longer to pass, how it felt that the day would never arrive? And Christmas Eve was the worst, lasting what seemed a week, with a full day going by in just the moments between climbing under the covers and drifting off to sleep.
Which is how I got to thinking of Christmas as a black hole. Let's face it: Its gravitational field is stronger than anything else on the calendar, so it makes sense that it would warp time. In approaching it, the clock does slow down, whether for the child anticipating presents or the adult feeling the barrage of seasonal sales, holiday parties, and Xmas music will never end. And when we reach Christmas Eve – the holiday's event horizon – time is standing still. How else to explain Santa's ability to deliver gifts across the globe in a single night? (And the next time some Cindy Lou Who pins you down with that question, feel free to go all Stephen Hawking on her with that explanation.)
Science tells us that the gravity of a black hole is so powerful, no human could survive falling into one, and there are times when the extreme gravity of Christmas feels that crushing. But Interstellar and A Christmas Carol want us to imagine the impossible, to show us someone passing beyond the event horizon – and the change that results. Both stories portray that passage as fantastic and profoundly transformative – redemptive even – which may make us look at them and say that they're nice stories but they're not our stories. Such changes don't come to us. But you know, we all pass through the black hole of Christmas every year, and just on the other side of it is New Year's Day. Sure, it's only an arbitrary date on the calendar, but it carries a potent symbolic value, allowing everyone to turn a new page, in our datebooks and ourselves. And it follows fast upon the solstice, when the sun begins its return. Beyond the blackness is light, and we can move toward it if we choose. A Christmas Carol and Interstellar are assuring us: There's still time.