In a Washington Post editorial on the overlapping eclipse and solstice, Starhawk, a prominent Wiccan, said the winter solstice, which is the shortest day and longest night of the year, is also one of the most sacred pagan holidays.
She said pagans believe that the darkness that comes with winter is the "necessary balance to light," but that the solstice, which marks the beginning of longer days and shorter nights, appeals to humans' natural affinity for light.
"Solstice reminds us that no darkness, no loss, no grief or disappointment is final," she wrote Monday. "Out of darkness, light is born. Every ending gives rise to a new beginning. Out of disappointment and despair comes new courage, new hope."
Citing astrologers, she said that is today not only a day of solstice and eclipse but that Earth is directly aligned with the Milky Way's galactic center, which is where stars are born.
"For those of you who like to align your meditations and your magic with the movements of the stars, we stand tonight between the past and the future," she said. "For the first hour and a quarter of the eclipse...it's as if we step out of time. We are free of the past, and we can consciously create the future, for ourselves, for our communities, for the earth."
She said it's a moment for people to evaluate the qualities they want to leave behind and plan the road ahead.
"It's a night to envision the future you want to create. What world do we want to see? How will we step up to face the huge challenges of healing our communities, our economies, our climate and our environment? What risks will we need to take? What will we need to let go of, and what will we need to embrace?"
Erika Brady, a professor in the department of folk studies and anthropology at Western Kentucky University, said that the moon has always held a particular kind of fascination for people.
"The sun is good old dependable. It rises in the morning and sets in the evening," she said. "The moon was a much more mysterious entity."
In prescientific times, she said, lunar eclipses occurring during winter or summer solstices were particularly noteworthy. She said that in the pre-Christian era, especially among pan-European communities that experienced seasonal changes, people celebrated solstices and equinoxes, as they were especially easy to track.
Long before the winter solstice was associated with the birth of Jesus, she said the date took on tremendous importance.
"It's difficult for us to imagine how dreary the winters were -- short days, monotonous food, very little to celebrate. When they could expect the days to become noticeably longer, it was huge," she said.
While she hasn't encountered records that specifically document unusual moon appearances during solstice points, she said, "note would have been taken."
"A lunar eclipse occurring during any of the major feasts that are associated with the sun phenomena would have been quite striking," she said. "It would have given a solstice an extra importance."