Amateur astronomers weren't the only ones paying attention to last night's lunar eclipse. For those who make meaning out of cosmic conditions, it was more than a scientific phenomenon, it was a symbolically-charged celestial event.
That's because it wasn't just the only lunar eclipse of 2010, it was the first total lunar eclipse to fall on a winter solstice in 372 years. The last time a lunar eclipse corresponded with a winter solstice, or the annual day when the Earth's axis is tilted farthest from the sun, was Dec. 21, 1638.
Astrologers and others who believe in the power of astronomical activity believe solar and lunar eclipses are always significant moments, but those that coincide with solstices make for even more intensified terrestrial events.
"It just underscores or highlights that the time that we're living in right now is extremely powerful -- it's a pivotal time," said New York astrologer Shelley Ackerman. "The collective is tremendously impacted by what's going on now. This is a huge turning point for the world at large -- not just in terms of world events, but [in terms of] consciousness."
Births of international figures and world events may coincide with solstice eclipses, she said. For example, Prince William was born June 21, 1982, which was a summer solstice and a solar eclipse. ABC News' own Diane Sawyer, whom Ackerman said has global impact, was born on Dec. 22, 1945, the day after a winter solstice and three days after a lunar eclipse.
John Marchesella, another New York-based astrologer, said that eclipses are "one of the most used and reliable of predictive techniques in traditional astrology."
This year's devastating Haiti earthquake, for example, took place just days before a major solar eclipse, and Princess Diana died on a solar eclipse. Marchesella emphasized that while eclipses are neither positive nor negative, they are always dramatic and noteworthy.
"In our personal lives, individuals get very over-reactive during an eclipse period because we are, well, eclipsed, in the dark, not in the know, and the ego doesn't like that," he said. "So we tend to overcompensate with feelings and impulses that are blown out of proportion. I always tell people during these times, relax, chill out and don't worry about anything because you can't take rational action until information comes to light."
Solstices will intensify and heighten the power of an eclipse because it's actually two cycles working at one time, he said.
While some end-of-days believers may draw parallels between the celestial events of Dec. 21, 2010 and the Mayan apocalypse date of Dec. 21, 2012, Marchesella said that, astrologically speaking, the solstice eclipse is not a harbinger of the end of the world.
"The Mayans just ran out of paper," he teased. "There will always be some prediction of the end of the world or some other such disaster or apocalypse. There will always be that because the end of the world is an archetype in the psyche and that will always seek expression."
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."