This Longest Night of the Year

LHS sunstones.jpg The winter solstice viewed at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, USA.By Tim Ereneta from Berkeley, CA – solstice gathering, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This is the December solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the June solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. This year the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 11:19 PM ET today, Saturday, December 21.

The winter solstice is also known as the hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice,  Midwinter, Yule, the Longest Night and Jólo.

We get a solstice when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. That happens twice yearly. For me, this is the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, but if I was at the North Pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around the winter solstice. (It’s the opposite for the summer solstice.)

Why would anyone think of the solstice as “Midwinter” when it seems to be the start of winter? If you want to optimistic, after the winter solstice the days get longer and the nights shorter. But I have to admit that in Paradelle I think of mid-January as midwinter.

The December solstice is usually the 21st or 22nd of December. As with Full Moons, a solstice really lasts only a moment, but we popularly refer to the entire day as the Winter Solstice.

In prehistory, the solstices were observed carefully and were much more significant cultural events. There were festivals and rituals and superstitions and beliefs around this occurrence. It was seen by some as the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun.

The late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites at Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland are still the site of ceremonies. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day “midwinter” holiday called Yule ( Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest). This holiday gave us many of the modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log.  Scandinavians still call Christmas “Jul” and in English “Yule” is often connected to the “yuletide” season which has been in usage since 900.

In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, the setting of the poem is a woods on the Winter Solstice.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Like the driver in those woods, it is good to stop a moment today and consider the solstice and nature’s beauty around us – but then, though “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” we all have our
promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Signs of Summer

tiger lily bloom

All the indicators of summer are here in Paradelle: Father’s Day, the smell of barbeques in the air, roses in blooms, green tomatoes in my garden, the first tiger lily blooms were this week, school ending (at least for southern schools and northern private and parochial schools), proud parent prom pictures on Facebook, people headed “down the shore” (as we say in New Jersey) starting with Memorial Day – and then, officially, the summer solstice. (The official part for my neighborhood is June 21, 2019 at 11:54 am EDT.)

Solstices are opposite on either side of the equator. Our summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

I have already written for past solstices of the solstitium (Latin for sol/sun and stitium/stop) and its ancient belief that the Sun appeared to stop at this time.  In our northern hemisphere, the Sun is actually higher in the sky throughout the day, so its rays are hitting Earth at a more direct angle and it is heating us up.

There is usually a Full Moon near the solstice, though there is no astronomical connection.

Although the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, that is relative. It may well seem the same or shorter than other days. In Paradelle, we just had three days of rain and rainy days always seem shorter to me. Today is summerish – reaching up in the 80 degrees and drying out things so that I can cut the grass.

Sunrise today was at 5:24 am at 58° Northeast. I was happy to have slept through it.  Sunset today will be at 8:30 pm at 302° Northwest.

Unlike the ancient ones, we now know that the Sun does not stop today, bit it does cross a path and “shifts” position at a moment in time. I observe the position of the Sun during the year relative to my home and at one time tracked it on my office wall. Isaac Newton did this too. I’m no Newton but I did like being a citizen scientist for my own curiosity and noting that when I was sipping my morning coffee on the couch, the Sun shines right on me. On the winter solstice – when I could use the extra heat – it is coming through a window on the other side of the room.

Whatever your signs of summer are, they probably have arrived too or are soon to appear. Hope you have a good season.

Old Man Winter Arrives

The winter solstice has historically been more than just the day that winter officially begins. It has been a religious event throughout history. This was particularly true in places where climates meant there were dramatically different seasons.

I have written here over the years about the solstices and there is only so much I can say about the technical aspects of this celestial event.

Solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because the Sun did seem to pause on that day and then move another way. The days lengthen after this and, after the longest night, the nights shorten.

The winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22 each year in the northern hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, their winter solstice will be between June 20 and 21.)

This is called the shortest day or the longest night of the year. This is the day when there is no sunlight at the North Pole.

The ancients associated seasons with deities. The ancient Greek god of winter is Boreas. The Norse god of winter is Ullr. In Celtic mythology, there is the god Cailleach and goddess Beira. Since winter could be a brutal and killing season in some places, appeasing the god of winter made sense.

As mythologies gave way to religions with one God, the old gods of winter changed to new personifications of the seasons. These characters, like Old man Winter, were someone to blame for your hardships, and someone to please so that spring would return.

Russia’s Father Frost is very similar to Old Man Winter and In Russian folklore, the character is known as Morozko.

Old Man Winter is a personification of winter that comes from ancient Greek mythology and Old World pagan beliefs that became a modern character in literature and popular culture.

Uncredited illustration of Old Man Winter, used for “Winter” in Child Life: A Collection of Poems, edited by John Greenleaf Whittier,

Ancient mythologies had gods for meteorological forces (thunder, lightning), each direction of the wind, and the seasons.

In the Greek myths, the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, had her daughter Persephone kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. It so depressed her , she became so despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.

Each direction of wind was considered a god. Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind and was shown in artwork as an old man who brought winter. In some Celtic traditions, the Oak King is considered a deity of the winter solstice. But he was also seen as a life force. The Oak King battled the Holly King who ruled from the start of summer. The Oak King’s reigned during the darkest time of the year, like the solstice, his coming was hopeful because it marked the gradual lengthening of the days and progression towards spring.

For the Norse mythologies, Ullr was the god of winter and son of a frost giant. When Odin was gone in winter, he ruled Asgard.

There are many holidays that were part of European culture and were able to be preserved within religious beliefs. Father Winter survived as Santa Claus. Evergreen tree worship survives in the Christmas tree tradition. There are still Christmas-time customs that are non-Christian.

Father Winter is an ancient Pagan figure who gave gifts of fruit, plants, and herbs. He wore a cape and delivered his gifts on a white horse.

Winter probably seemed to arrive about a month ago if you live in a northern climate like Paradelle. But now it’s official. If you get the winter blues, perhaps you should think of the winter solstice as it was once viewed – as the turning of the Sun, the lengthening of the days, and the first step on the celestial path to spring. Enjoy the journey.

It’s the Solstice. Welcome to Winter.

The June solstice may be the the official jump into summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but today kicks off winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Isn’t that amazing?

Summer slipped in at 10:07 AM UTC which is 6:07 AM in Paradelle (EDT) and I slept through it. It was near sunrise in the Americas, but noon in Africa, and sunset in Japan and Indonesia.

Here there was an early dawn and longer days are ahead with today being the longest day of the year. Sunset will be late. Nights will be short.

I have never been south of the equator. It would be quite strange to go south today and find winter upon me.

It would also be fun to be at Stonehenge where they celebrate the summer solstice. They follow the ancients who knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year.

If I could be at the Sphinx on the summer solstice, I could look at the two pyramids and see the Sun set exactly between them.

This astronomical event is caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun. Despite picture we saw and drew as kids, the Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is tilted on its axis by about 23 degrees.

Right now our planet is positioned so that the North Pole is leaning most toward the sun.

Did you know that no official world body has designated an official first day of any season?
Summer began on June 1 in meteorology. At the New Jersey shore, summer starts with Memorial Day weekend. As a kid, summer started on the last day of school.

And if a kid (or adult) asks you why if this is the longest day, why is it much hotter in late July and August? Tell them it is the lag of the seasons. That is not that lazy feeling we get on a hot, summer day. The planet takes time to warm up after winter. There is still ice and snow in places in June. And the oceans take some time to warm as anyone who has already been to the beach in New Jersey knows.
already in the still blanket the ground in some places. The sun has to melt the ice – and warm the oceans – and then we feel the most sweltering summer heat. The melting runoff from glaciers will peak in July.

Manhattanhenge

ManhattanhengeManhattanhenge is the name given to an event that occurs when the setting sun aligns with the east–west streets of the main street grid in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

The term Manhattanhenge is a neologism from Stonehenge where the sun aligning with the ancient stones on the solstices is an famous event. The Manhattanhenge term was popularized in 2002 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Today is the last time in 2017 that the alignment will occur. The New York event occurs twice a year.

The event applies to those streets that follow a plan from 1811 which laid out the streets in a grid offset 29.0 degrees from true east–west. During Manhattanhenge, an observer on one of the gridded east-west streets will see the sun setting over New Jersey directly along the centerline of that street.

The dates of Manhattanhenge usually occur around May 28 and July 12 being spaced evenly around the summer solstice.

On two corresponding mornings, the sun rises on the center lines of the grid on (approximately) December 5 and January 8, spaced evenly around the winter solstice. As with the solstices and equinoxes, the dates vary somewhat from year to year.

This phenomenon occurs in other cities with a uniform street grid. For North Americans who want to be Druids for a day, Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto also have their -henge days.

The events would only coincide with the vernal and autumnal equinox only if the grid plan were laid out precisely north-south and east-west, and perfectly aligned with true north as opposed to magnetic north. Someone should plan a new city for that to happen.

 

Strawberries for the Solstice

The Summer Solstice for 2017 in the Northern Hemisphere happened here at 12:24 AM EDT today, Wednesday, June 21.  Did you miss it?

I was still awake, but I didn’t feel anything odd. Due to those manmade time zones, it happened yesterday Tuesday, June 20, at 9:24 PM on the other coast. And it is only the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

In any case, the Sun reached its northernmost point from the equator.

Solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop). It did seem to earlier observers that the Sun appeared to stop at this time and then again to announce the winter solstitium.

In ancient Egypt, this solstice marked the start of the new year. They watched for the rising of the star Sirius which occurs around this time and it coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River.

The halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice was on May 1. That day is known as May Day or Beltane and it marked the beginning of summer for the ancient Celts. It was a day for dance and song to celebrate that the sown fields were starting to sprout.

This is the day with the most hours of sunlight during the whole year – even if it is rainy and cloudy where you are reading this. Here in Paradelle, dawn broke today at 3:18 A.M., the Sun rose at 5:25 A.M. and it won’t set until 8:32 P.M. giving us 15:06 hours of sunlight.

If we were on Mercury, which has practically no tilt relative to the plane of its orbit, we wouldn’t experience any true seasons. Bummer. If we were on Uranus, which is tilted by almost 98 degrees, the seasons would last 21 years. Also a bummer.

If I lived in Sweden, it would be traditional to celebrate this day by eating the first strawberries of the season. Since we just passed the Strawberry Full Moon, and since strawberries never go out of season in Paradelle in this age of supply chain eternal summer, I’ll have some strawberries myself today.