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winter-solstice

We entered winter today. For my little place in the world, it already happened at 5:44 am while I was sleeping. (Check here for your own neighborhood)

The world doesn’t look or feel very different to me from yesterday.

The winter solstice usually occurs on December 21 or December 22 here in the northern hemisphere. 1

Do you view today as the shortest day of the year, or is it the longest night of the year? I suppose that is a glass half empty or full situation. Just to get a bit technical,  when we talk about the solstice day, we mean “day” not as daylight, but as the period from one midday solar noon to the next, so it does bridge two calendar days.

Online you will find today a lot of pictures of modern-day “Druids” greeting the dawn at Stonehenge. That ancient stone circle reminds us that in neolithic times astronomical events that they knew really did guide them about how to live their lives. It controlled when they mated animals, sowed new crops and prepared their winter reserves.

You can measure the solstice like the ancients. If you have a sundial – or a stick in the ground – you can note the midday shadow of the gnomon (the vertical part that casts the shadow). I have a pretty basic sundial and on the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere it shows its longest shadow. It is the shortest shadow on the summer solstice.

You could also be more observant about when in the year the sun rises or sets at its most southern point because that indicates the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Both of these are observational skills that we seem to have lost in our “evolution.”

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the two solstices. It seems to have been the time to have Virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi: Isis to Horus; Demeter to Persephone; Jesus to Mary.

Today’s sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) isn’t really a day when the sun stands still for more than an instant, but things do shift into winter gear.

Hey, the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from our hemisphere! So, celebrate!

The solstice was a celebration before the hard winter began. You don’t have to slaughter any cattle (something that was done for winter food and also because they might not be able to be fed during the winter) but the ancients did enjoy that fresh meat and the wine and beer that was ready for drinking. Maybe you can celebrate tonight with some evergreen decorations, bright illumination (bonfire? or some candles) and your favorite feasting foods. Invite friends, neighbors and family and dance and sing!

 


1 The date depends on the shift of the calendar. December 21 or 22 solstices happen more often than December 20 and 23 solstices. The last December 23 solstice was in 1903 and will not happen again until 2303.  A December 20 solstice has occurred very rarely, with the next one in the year 2080. The winter solstice occurs between June 20 and June 21 in the southern hemisphere.

Photographing the South Beach Full Moon

The first full moon of this spring season came early enough after the March 2016 equinox to allow for a fourth full moon to take place just prior to the summer solstice.

We had the equinox on March 20 and full moons on March 23, April 22, May 21 and now on June 20 at 11:02 Universal Time. The summer solstice will follow at 23:34 Universal Time. (That is 7:30 pm EDT – use the worldtimeserver.com to convert time zones.)

Last year, we had a father’s day solstice that got me thinking about childhood summer and father memories. Thinking about summer and full moons, sends my thoughts to nights on the beach when the full moon over the ocean looks bigger and more dramatic and gives a soft light to the beach.

As we slide into summer in the Northern Hemisphere,  the solstice (from the Latin solstitium, from sol-sun) and stitium- to stop), it’s a good day to stop ourselves and consider the season past and one ahead.

We now know that the Sun does not stop on the two solstices but simply crosses a path and “shifts” position at a moment in time. Do you observe the position of the Sun during the year? You probably don’t in as careful a way as I do or astronomers, but perhaps you notice that the Sun is higher in the sky throughout the day now. Have you ever noticed in the morning that the sun rises in relation to your home and your windows from different places in winter and summer? From my usual morning coffee spot in the family room, the Sun is shining right on me in winter, but come summer it’s streaming in a window on the other side of the room.

On the summer solstice tomorrow, the Sun is directly overhead at its most northern point at “high-noon.” There will be more sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere on this day than any other – even if it is cloudy or raining in your little corner of the world.

Why isn’t this also the hottest time of year? The atmosphere, land, and oceans are still cool from winter and spring and absorbing part of the incoming heat and energy from the Sun. But as the land and, especially, the oceans release that stored heat later in the summer, that will bring us our hottest days and nights.

solstice

Many people think of the winter solstice as a bad thing – the coming of winter. The winter solstice has long been thought of as a time when the Sun turns from its falling into darkness back into gaining light. It was a time that was celebrated around the world.

Looking to religion and mythology, it is the time when virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi: Isis to Horus; Demeter to Persephone; Jesus to Mary. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstices.

The word solstice’s roots are in Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). One, some believed that the sun stood still for a day before shifting, but we know now it is just an 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.

It may last only a moment, but we treat the entire day as the solstice and the shift of seasons. The nights’ lengthening, the days shortening, will begin to reverse after this point.

sunrise snow

The winter solstice 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. December 21 or 22 solstices happen more often than December 20 and 23 solstices. The last December 23 solstice was in 1903 and will not happen again until 2303 when I will no longer be blogging. A December 20 solstice has occurred very rarely, with the next one in the year 2080.

It’s a bit confusing, but only because of the way we try to manipulate time to serve our needs. In Paradelle, it will occur on Monday, December 21, 2015 at 11:49 p.m. EST and at 10:48 p.m. CST for central time zone in North America. But using UT (Universal Time), it is on December 22, at 4:48. You can check the time in your neighborhood at timeanddate.com

Depending on the culture or your point of view, you can see today as the shortest day or longest night of the year. Sometimes you will hear someone say that this is the longest day or that the longest days of the year come each year around the December solstice, we mean “day” not as a period of daylight, but as the interval from one midday solar noon to the next.

At the North Pole, this is a day when there is no sunlight, so the lights must be burning full-time at Santa’s workshop.

Druids were once chanting as the solstice dawn approached at Stonehenge. Some modern-day ones continue each solstice remembering neolithic times when astronomical events guided the mating of animals, the sowing of crops, and how people monitored their winter reserves between harvests.

At Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange in Ireland, the primary axes of these monuments are aligned on a sight-line pointing to the solstice sunrise and sunset.

As the declination of the Sun on this (northern) winter solstice (also known as the Tropic of Capricorn) moves into place, you can take notice the way it has been celebrated for at least 30,000 years and as an important time for agrarian cultures the past 10,000 years.

I watch and take note on paper as the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit of the position of the Sun changing from my family room window over the course of the year. (Sunrise azimuth today = 120°)

Perhaps, rather than being sad (or SAD, as in Seasonal Affective Disorder), you should celebrate on this longest night of the year with evergreens, bright illumination from lights, candles or a nice fire, some feasting with family and loved ones and dancing and singing.

 

carwash500

Summer officially begins with the solstice today, June 21 at 12:38 P.M. EDT. This year, Father’s Day falls on the solstice. There’s no cosmic connection between the two, but maybe it has you thinking about childhood summers and some memories of doing things with your father.

You can take that solstice and its Latin solstitium to mean sol/sun and stitium/stop as its ancient meaning – that the Sun appeared to stop at this time. Or, this year, you can take it as a reminder to stop for the day and remember your father. (As a dad, I like the latter.) You’ve got the time today because the summer solstice is the day with the most hours of sunlight during the whole year.

In our northern hemisphere, the Sun is higher in the sky throughout the day. Its rays are hitting Earth at a more direct angle and it is heating us up.

Around Paradelle, people launch summer things – barbecues and beach days – when Memorial day hits. But as a kid, school always seemed to ended somewhere near the solstice and so that second or third week of June really was summer for us.

What’s your traditional summer celebration? Did it connect with your Dad?

The solstice day was traditionally celebrated by dancing around the bonfires. My dad made barbecue fires. Never danced.

He did love the Jersey Shore and that was a summer ritual. There was a bit of fishing and crabbing, which he only did on those shore trips. Definitely a summer thing for him.

Our vegetable garden was a big part of summer. Plant those Jersey tomatoes and plant them deep – up to the top leaves – to survive our dry, hot summer days.

We did picnics, but no camping. Camping is one of my memories of being a father. Great times in the woods with my two sons.

But it doesn’t require big events to make the day. As father or son, teaching or learning how to fix something around the house. Washing the car. Cutting the grass. Looking for seashells by the shoreline.

Enjoy your long day. Think some good thoughts about your father. Say it in person, if you can, but say it aloud either way.

aphelion-perihelion-earth
Before dawn this morning (from my North American longitude) the Earth reached its closest point to the sun for this year. Did you feel it?  No, but this annual event (this time at 6:36 UTC or 01:36 a.m. EST) is called perihelion from the Greek roots peri (near) and helios (sun).

Our planet gets closest to the sun every year in early January. Obviously, that doesn’t make it any warmer in the Northern Hemisphere, and we aren’t any cooler in early July when the aphelion occurs and we are farthest away from the sun. I’ll bet this confused the ancients (and some modern readers) if they knew it was occurring, though the Southern Hemisphere ancients must have thought it made perfect sense.

Earth is about 5 million kilometers (3 million miles) closer to the sun in early January than it will be in early July. That sounds like a big difference, but it’s not really significant enough to cause temperature changes across the planet and it doesn’t explain the seasons.

Mostly, it is the tilt of our planet’s axis that creates winter and summer. In winter, your hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and in summer it is tilted toward the sun. Those days of maximum tilt toward or away from the sun are the December and June solstices.

There’s a page on perihelion and aphelion and all the upcoming dates at astropixels.com if you want more information.

analemma on globe

Analemma printed on a globe (Globe Museum, Vienna)

The second solstice for 2014 occurs tomorrow on December 21st. It literally happens at 23:03 UTC but like many cosmic events, most of us think of it as a day. For those in Northern Hemisphere, it will be winter solstice and for those in Southern Hemisphere it will be summer solstice marking the first day of the two seasons.

At that moment, it will be sunset in North and South America, sunrise in far-eastern Asia, midnight in Africa and Europe and noontime over the Pacific Ocean.

In Paradelle (Northern Hemisphere), we will have our shortest day and longest night of the year. This month, one rotation of Earth relative to the noonday sun – what we call a day – is about 30 seconds longer than the average 24 hours. Get past that “day” that is on your calendar or the idea of that clock face.

You would actually be better off measuring the true length of a solar day (the time from one solar noon to the next) by using a sundial.

The photo at the top of this post shows an analemma printed on a globe which shows the sun’s declination. That is the angular distance from the celestial equator and the difference (in minutes) between time as measured by the clock and time as measured by the sun. Sounds complicated, right?

In fact, in astronomy, an analemma (from Greek “pedestal of a sundial”) is a curve representing the changing angular offset of a celestial body (usually the Sun) from its mean position on the celestial sphere as viewed from another celestial body (usually the Earth).  Still complicated.

The Earth’s annual revolution around the Sun is an elliptical orbit. That means it is tilted relative to the plane of the equator. We, being observers at a fixed point on the Earth, see the Sun appear to move in an analemma around a mean position. If you observed the position of the Sun in the sky and plotted it or photographed it at the same time every few days, all year-long, the points would trace out the analemma.

I did this very unscientifically one year by just noting where the Sun appeared (I used a compass) when viewed every morning as I had my breakfast and gazed out the east window. It amazed me how far the Sun moved during the year. I ended up with a graph of the Sun’s declination plotted against the equation of time.

Like the “equator” or other terms, an analemma is an abstract concept. It has no physical existence except in diagrams and time-lapse photographs. Nevertheless, we do describe it as if it were a real, visible celestial object.

Analemma plotted as seen at noon

Analemma plotted as seen at noon GMT from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (latitude 51.48° north, longitude 0.0015° west).

Afternoon analemma photo

Afternoon analemma photo taken in 1998-1999 by Jack Fishburn in Murray Hill, NJ – not far from Paradelle – at Bell Laboratories where my father worked in the 1950s.

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