For people who like turning points, the winter solstice ranks right
up there, bringing the end of short days and the return of more sun -
ever so slowly.
"It's kind of a gut thing. People don't like the dark," says Deborah Byrd, editor in chief of EarthSky.org.
"After Christmas, you start to notice that the sun is setting later. Even a few minutes later is such a relief," she says.
winter solstice marks the shortest
day of the year. The United States will get just nine hours
and 32 minutes of daylight.
"Up until winter solstice, the sun is
moving southward from day to day. As it approaches solstice its
southward march slows down," says Benjamin Burress, an astronomer at the
Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland.
At the solstice the
sun stops going south and pauses, motionless. "Then after solstice, it
is again moving northward in the sky each day," he says. Solstice means
The solstice occurs because the Earth is tipped
on its axis 23.5 degrees. In the northern hemisphere in the summer, the
axis is pointing its most toward the sun on June 21. On that day the
most light reaches us and we experience the longest day of the year and
warmer temperatures: the summer solstice.
The reverse is true on
Dec. 21. Then the axis is pointing its most away from the sun, bringing
less light and colder temperatures. That is the winter solstice, the
longest night of the year.
It's the opposite in the southern hemisphere, where Dec. 21 marks the longest day of the year and June 21 the shortest.
midpoints, on March 20 and Sept. 22, are known as the equinoxes. On
these days the axis is exactly in between and night and day are the
same length, 12 hours.
All these dates loom large in myth and folklore.
the solstices and equinoxes are typically used to denote either the
beginnings of the seasons or the center points of the seasons," as in
England, says Rick Kline, with the Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility
at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Kwanzaa and other holidays have arisen out of the solstices, equinoxes
and the midpoints between them," he says.
The solstice is regarded
by many traditional societies as the turning point of the year and a
time of great concern, says Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith
Observatory in Los Angeles. It is a "cosmological crisis point, in which
the outcome of the coming year would be determined," he says.
cultures have elaborate rituals at solstice time to ensure the return
of the sun. In China the emperor would ascend the Temple of Heaven in
Beijing to offer burned sacrifices as an intermediary between heaven and
earth, Krupp says.
It is no coincidence that Christmas and the solstice occur near each other, he says.
we don't really know when Christ was born, it's that simple," says
Krupp. The Dec. 25 date was chosen by the church several centuries
after the birth of Christ.
"It had its antecedents in Rome, which already had a celebration called Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun," he says.
For early peoples, for whom the sun was all light and all warmth, the solstice loomed large.
even for us it's a difficult time. "Between clock-change day and when
people take down their Christmas lights, if I can get through that
month, then I'm OK," Byrd says.