Winter Solstice, Full Moon

Stonehenge by John Nail

December 21 is the Winter Solstice for 2010. and it is also a Full Moon. This astronomical calendar coincidence is interesting, but not unique. I wrote a post last year at this time, because we had a full moon to end 2009 on December 31, and it was also the second full moon of the month and it was a “Blue Moon.”

The solstice that we mark in the northern hemisphere is the shortest day of the year and the longest night, and it officially marks the first day of winter. It will be the “shortest day” of the year in that the length of time between sunrise and sunset is the shortest.

Then again, if you accept human attempts to control time, daylight saving time means that the first Sunday in April only has 23 hours and the last Sunday in October has 25 hours – but that’s just civilized silliness.

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years.  Though many people associate it with harvests and agrarian celebrations, that dating puts it even before humans were farming on a large scale.

You probably know that many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The most famous example is the stone circle of Stonehenge which was placed to receive the first rays of the midwinter sun.

In the north, this can be a depressing time of year as you are more confined indoors and the outdoors look bare and dead. But the solstice gives hope with its reversal of shortening days and is more seen as a time to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Get out the evergreens, bright illumination, a big fire, some feasting, being with loved ones, and dancing and singing.

On the scientific side, we know that as the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year. That is because of the changing orientation of the Earth’s tilted rotation axes with respect to the Sun.

When we arrive at the points of maximum tilt (marked at the equator), we get the summer and winter solstice.

Correspondingly, the points of zero tilt are our vernal (spring) equinox and autumnal equinoxes.

The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) since to the ancients the sun did seem to stand still.  In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses had meetings on the winter and summer solstice.

In many cultural histories, this is the time when virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi, Isis to Horus, Demeter to Persephone and Mary to Jesus.

The birth of Horus was celebrated around December 23, shortly after Winter Solstice which marked the time of Osiris’s final entombment.

Though we can’t be sure, the solstice may have had significance even for people in neolithic times. Since these astronomical events influence the mating of animals and the appearance of things in nature, it would have affected their conservation of food reserves and then the sowing of crops.

In the areas around Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange in Ireland,  January to April were famine months. The solstice was a celebration before the hard winter.  If cattle were slaughtered, it was not to celebrate, but because they often could not be fed through the winter. Wine and beer made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

The winter solstice occurs sometime between December 21 and December 22 each year in the northern hemisphere. For our southern readers, winter will come between June 20 and June 21.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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