The Short Shadow of the Winter Solstice

I write a post for each of the solstices because I like to mark astronomical events in some way. It connects me to people of the past who paid much closer attention to the natural world at their feet and above their heads than we do today.

I have written before about the scientific explanation of what is happening and I try to find something new to say each year. This 2012 winter solstice on December 21 has attracted more attention because of the Mayan calendar connection and the attached media madness. I wrote about all that earlier, so here I am only interested in the solstice itself.

It took a long time in our collective history to determine how to mark our time both minute to minute and year to year. Just deciding on when the year begins was an issue. You could use the September or March equinox, or at the June or December solstice.

The ancients could observe solstices by marking the midday shadow of a gnomon, that part of a sundial that casts the shadow. Gnomon is an ancient Greek word meaning “indicator”, “one who discerns,” or “that which reveals.”  What it reveals on the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is that it is at its longest. It is at its shortest shadow when we reach the summer solstice. They could also have observed the point of time when the sun rises or sets as far south as it does during the course of the year (winter in the northern hemisphere) or maximally north (summer in the northern hemisphere).

Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23.

Most people know that our winter in the Northern Hemisphere is summer in the southern half of the Earth.  On this solstice, if you are north of the Arctic Polar Circle, you are in darkness. If you are below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south (that’s the Antarctic Polar Circle) you will receive 24 hours of daylight.

In Guatemala on this day, modern Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays the flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer.

The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice.

Many of the “Nature peoples” around the world including Wiccans and other Pagans often blend together ancient as well as contemporary approaches to seasonal festivals. Celebrations include the Solstices, Equinoxes, and even the mid-points between which are known as the Cross Quarters.

Published by


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

One thought on “The Short Shadow of the Winter Solstice”

Add to the conversation about this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.