Celebrate the Winter Solstice

Astronomical winter officially begins with the winter solstice on Friday, December 21, 2018 at 22:23 UTC (Universal Time Coordinated) or 5:23p.m. EST.  The word solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium with “sol” meaning “sun” and the past participle stem of “sistere” meaning “to make stand.”  This came from the observation that the sun’s position relative to the horizon at noon appears to stop or stand still in the days surrounding the solstice.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year and the start of astronomical winter.

Figure 1: Changing position of the sun

As the seasons progress from summer to fall to winter the sun moves from being high overhead at noon on summer solstice to being at its farthest point south on the horizon at noon on winter solstice.  (See Figure 1.)  This apparent change in the position of the sun is due to the 23.5 degree axial tilt of the Earth and Earth’s movement around the sun.  The Earth’s 23.5 degree axial tilt is the reason Earth has seasons.  At winter solstice the Earth’s north polar axis is pointed away from the sun.  The sunlight received by the northern hemisphere during this time of year is more indirect, not as concentrated, and therefore not as warming.  (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Position of Earth at Winter Solstice

You may have noticed that the date of the winter solstice varies from year to year.  It can occur between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates.  The date varies because the tropical year – the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth – is different from the calendar year.  The winter solstice not only occurs on a specific day, it also occurs at a specific time of day.  Winter solstice occurs at the specific moment when the Earth’s north polar axis is pointed at its furthest away from the sun.  At this moment the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.  (See Figure 3.) And regardless of where you live the winter solstice happens at the exact same moment for everyone on the planet.

Figure 3: At the moment of Winter Solstice, Sun directly over the Tropic of Capricorn

As the winter solstice approaches, we are very much aware that daylight hours grow shorter and shorter, and begin to lengthen again after the solstice.  However, not having our scientific understanding of the winter solstice, to our ancestors the dwindling daylight and threat of starvation with the coming winter months was very real and scary.  They dealt with their fear that the sun would be forever gone by holding various celebrations and rites to encourage the sun to return and bring new life.

Figure 4: Stonehenge at Winter Solstice

It is believed that ancient humans were observing and studying the sky as early as the Stone Age. They knew well the sun’s path across the sky, the changing sunrise and sunset locations and the changes in length of light and darkness in the days. They observed that all of these changes happened in a regular and predictable pattern throughout the year.  They built monuments such as Stonehenge in England where the primary axis of the structure is oriented to the winter solstice setting sun.  Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Scotland (both built before Stonehenge and even the Great Pyramids of Giza) are tomb-like structures aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice.  Some Archaeologists have theorized that these monuments played a central role in rituals to mark the beginning of a new year, return of the sun and of life over death.  Though the true purpose of Stonehenge, Newgrange, Maeshowe and many other such monuments is still debated, their importance on the winter solstice continues to this day with thousands of people gathering to witness and celebrate the solstice sunrise or sunset. Out of the ancient winter solstice celebrations and rituals came many of the most well-known Christmas traditions.

Figure 5: Mistletoe

For instance, it was Druid tradition to bring flowers and plants from the outside to decorate their homes during the dark days of winter.  Mistletoe and holly are plants that typically thrive during the winter months and became the ones most associated with the winter solstice.  The Druids (Celtic priests) cut mistletoe that grew on oak trees and gave it as a blessing.  Oak trees were sacred to the Druids and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life and rebirth in the dark winter months. I’m sure all of you know how we use mistletoe today.  The Druids observed that at winter solstice the sun appeared to stand still for twelve days and was trying to decide whether to leave the sky for good or to return to the sky.  It was the Druids who began the tradition of burning a large log, a log big enough to burn for twelve days.  The burning log banished evil spirits, conquered the darkness returning the sun to the sky and brought luck for the coming year.  This ritual would be adopted by many ancient peoples to encourage the return of the sun.

The Scandinavian and Germanic peoples called the winter solstice “Yuul” or as we know it today “Yule.”  They burned large yule logs in their hearths for 12 days to encourage and welcome back the sun’s light.  The warmth and light of the fire symbolized the Sun’s rebirth and return back to the north. This gave rise to today’s custom of burning a yule log in our fireplaces and baking yule log cakes.  The Yule tree had been in solstice celebration traditions thousands of years before it became known as the Christmas tree.  The translation of this tradition into modern Christmas trees began in the 16th century, when Germans began placing decorated evergreens in their homes.  Evergreen trees are a symbol of continual life, especially at the time of winter solstice.

Figure 6: Yule log

Figure 7: Lighting the dark

Rather than letting the dark of the long nights during this time of the year get to them, the ancient Romans chose to party.  They held a week-long celebration beginning on December 17 called Saturnalia and on December 25 (at the time, the date of the winter solstice in the Julian calendar) they also celebrated Sol Invictus meaning “Invincible Sun.”  Originally Saturnalia was held to celebrate and honor the agricultural god Saturn to both remember the agricultural prosperity that would allow them to survive the winter and to pray for prosperity in the future.  Sol Invictus was celebrated to renew the Sun King and was directly linked to the winter solstice.  Both celebrations were over time replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of Saturnalia’s customs have survived as Christmas traditions. Including singing from house to house which is now Christmas caroling, excessive feasting has transformed to extended family dinners and office parties, eating baked goods shaped like people has become the baking and eating of gingerbread men, exchanging gifts particularly wax candles which some believe signified the returning light after solstice became our tradition of gift giving on Christmas and the burning of candles throughout the Christmas season and decorating with evergreen plants to remind people that life was still possible and would return in the spring.

Please join The Wilderness Center and the Wilderness Center Astronomy Club on Friday, December 21, to celebrate the winter solstice with craft making, star gazing and a planetarium show.  All are welcomed.  You can make a craft from 4:00pm to 6:30pm.  Show times for the planetarium show “Season of Light” are 2:00pm, 4:00pm and 6:00pm.  “Season of Light” explores the history and development of many of the world’s most endearing holiday customs, all of which involve lighting up the winter season.  We will explore historical, religious and cultural rituals during the time of winter solstice of not only Christian and Jewish cultures, but also Celtic, Nordic, Roman, Irish, Mexican and Hopi.  Learn why the Earth has seasons and the possible astronomical explanations for a “Star over Bethlehem.”  And, if it’s clear, the Astronomy Club will host a Star Watch to share the wonders of the winter solstice night sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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