Slipping Into the Winter Solstice


Paradelle slips into Winter this Thursday when the sun stands still. Well, not really, but the word solstice is from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). The sun won’t stand still on December 21st, but the winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer’s hemisphere.

The December solstice will occur at 05:30 ( 5:30am) Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on December 22, 2011. It is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere due to the seasonal differences. The winter solstice always occurs some time between December 21 and December 22 each year in the northern hemisphere (it depends on the shift of the calendar), and between June 20 and June 21 in the southern hemisphere.

It does literally only last an instant, but most people mark the entire day on which it occurs as the solstice.

Solstices have significance is several ways. First, there is the seasonal significance of the winter solstice. Though many people see it as the start of winter and view it as sort of depressing (as compared to summer), in many cultural celebrations, it was seen as an optimistic sign. The gradually lengthening nights and shortening days actually will begin to reverse after this point. So, get happy!

This shortest day or longest night of the year is interpreted differently from culture to culture. There are many winter solstice observances around the world.


Though we can’t be sure, the solstice probably had significance even for people in neolithic times. Since all the seasonal astronomical events have influence on the mating of animals and the appearance or disappearance of plants and resources in nature, solstices (which they probably did not mark accurately as a “day”) certainly would have affected their conservation of food reserves and then the sowing of crops.

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years. Celebrations predate when humans were farming on a large scale, so this goes beyond harvest festivals.

The remains of sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange in Ireland show that the primary axes of both of these monuments are aligned to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. New Grange points to the winter solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset is aligned at Stonehenge.

This was seen as the time when Virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons. That’s not just the birth of Jesus Christ, which is the best known and most celebrated, but Rhiannon to Pryderi, Isis to Horus and Demeter to Persephone. The birth of Horus was celebrated about December 23, shortly after the solstice, the time of Osiris’s final entombment. At this time of the year, Isis and Nephthys were said to have circled the shrine of Osiris seven times, symbolizing their mourning and search for his scattered body parts.

January to April were famine months, so a solstice festival before the tough times would include the slaughter of livestock. This may have once had ceremonial/sacrifice significance, but also had a practical point – because they would not have to be fed during the winter. Plus, wine and beer made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice. Those were probably some great parties.

Last year, we had both the Winter Solstice and a Full Moon occurring on the same day. In 2009, we had a Full Moon to end the year December 31 that was also the second full moon of the month and so it was a “Blue Moon.”

It is the shortest day of the year in that the length of time between sunrise and sunset is the shortest and the longest night.

Of course, if you believe that humans have any control over Time, then daylight saving time means that the first Sunday in April only has 23 hours and the last Sunday in October has 25 hours. Of courses, the heavens (if not the gods) laugh at this civilized hubris.

From the scientific side, as the Earth travels around the Sun, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year and that changing orientation of the Earth’s tilted 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.

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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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