The winter solstice

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Winter solstice diagram
Winter solstice diagram (Whitney Locher diagram)

The longest night of the year. The shortest day of the year. The first day of winter. Any way you want to look at it, the winter solstice is here. The moment, which occurs annually in the Northern Hemisphere, arrives this year on Thursday, Dec. 21 at 10:27 p.m.

I always breathe a sigh of relief on this date, as I know that the days will begin growing longer again. But what does it all mean?

Winter solstice

Winter solstice marks the beginning of what we refer to as “astronomical winter”. As opposed to “meteorological winter,” which is based on our 12-month calendar and starts three weeks prior, astronomical winter is based on the position of the sun in relation to the Earth.

The Earth travels around the sun spinning on its axis. Instead of being straight up and down, the axis is fixed in a tilted position (23.5 degrees) which never changes. A single rotation on this axis takes 24 hours, allowing us to experience day and night. An entire trip around the sun takes the Earth one year, 365 days. During this time, the section of Earth which receives the sun’s rays is always changing. Because of the tilt in the Earth’s axis, sometimes it is leaning toward the sun, and sometimes away. When the Earth is tilting toward the sun, summer occurs, as it receives more of the sun’s energy and the days are warmer and longer. But when the Earth is tilted away from the sun, we experience winter, resulting in cold, short days.

It is interesting to note that winter solstice is not really a day, but a moment in time. It is the exact moment when the Earth is titled as far away from the sun as it can possibly get before it begins to reverse course. On this day, the sun’s path across the sky is as low as it can be, arcing low over the horizon. If you stand outside at noon, your shadow will be the longest one that you will cast the entire year!

The word “solstice” actually translates to “sun stand still” from the Latin sol, meaning “sun” and sistere, to “stand still”. At the time of the winter solstice, the sun appears to freeze at the same elevation for several days, its path across the sky changing ever so slightly that it appears to stand still. Eventually, you will begin to see the sun’s path getting higher and higher again until it reaches its most northerly point on the day which we refer to as the summer solstice, usually on June 21.

All around the world, different cultures have observed the winter solstice. From as early as the Neolithic period, festivals have been held in an effort to celebrate the rebirth of the sun on this darkest day of the year. These celebrations revolve around fire and light — the traditional symbols for this season. Many feared that the sun would actually burn out and held elaborate rituals, some of which lasted for many days, to appease the sun god. Instead of writing in-depth about some of these celebrations which, to this day, have remained a part of our traditions, I give you four poems I penned, which will help you to understand what transpired during these ancient festivities.

MISTLETOE

Among the tangled branches, Druids searched the sacred oak,
For a precious plant called mistletoe, its presence to uncloak.

Skilled hands brought out a sickle brightly glistening in gold
To deftly cut the magic plant for others to behold.

The powers of fertility and essences of healing
Were aspects of the mistletoe that made it so appealing.

Inside the home where it was hung to bring about such bliss,
The mistletoe evoked a place where people stole a kiss!

THE ROMAN SATURNALIA

Excessive joy and merriment surround this massive gala;
The grandest of all festivals, the Roman Saturnalia.

Imbibing, feasting, giving gifts, remained a constant pattern
As all of this was dedicated to the God of Saturn.

Slaves changed places with their masters, others held a candle,
Businesses and schools closed down and many chose to gamble.

Halls of homes were decorated with great boughs of holly
For seven days and seven nights, everyone was jolly!

THE HEARTHA FIRE

A flat rock termed the “hearth stone” is how we will remember
The German goddess Heartha who premiers in mid-December.

Fresh greens upon the hearth fire will fill the room with smoke
For the deity of hearth and home, her presence to evoke.

A room with bows and greenery will forge the perfect blends
To welcome the great goddess through the smoke as she descends.

Good fortune she will grant to all throughout the coming year
As long as there is endless food and plenty of good cheer.

THE YULE LOG

The custom of the yule log — a tradition of the Norse
With size so big to haul it took an organized task force!

Into the home, upon the hearth, whose width completely spanned,
Lit with a piece of last year’s log held only by clean hand.

Twelve days and nights the log then burned, its flame must not be squelched
Throughout a yuletide festival, the cause of all who belched.

Sit on the log and make a wish, perhaps it will come true
Or better yet implant a kiss for good luck to accrue.

Its ashes were collected to the best of one’s ability
To spread on fields New Year’s Day, ensuring their fertility.

Happy holidays everyone!

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