The Winter Solstice
There is nothing more perfect than SNOW at Christmas Time. Those beautiful, white snowflakes that only fall when all the right elements fall into place are literally the icing on the cake for December. This week, we have seen the annual winter solstice take place between 20th and 23rd December in the northern hemisphere. It is considered by many folk to be the ‘first day of winter’ and the solstice marks a time when light and warmth return. From this point onwards, ‘lighter days are coming’.
The word ‘solstice’ actually means ‘sun stands still’ and is derived from Latin. During the winter solstice, the sun appears to do just this in the sky. It appears to rise and set almost in the same place on the horizon.
Now here is the science bit…Solstices take place because the Earth spins on its axis at an angle of 23°. One theory for this tilt is that billions of years ago, an object about the size of Mars collided with the Earth. The angle of this tilt is responsible for the Earth’s four seasons and how we see the sun throughout the year. As our planet orbits the Sun, the North Pole is sometimes leaning towards the Sun making it appear higher in the sky. In contrast, sometimes the North Pole is leaning away from the Sun making it appear lower on the horizon.
It is summer when the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun. When the Earth is tilted away from the Sun, it is the northern hemisphere’s winter. Weather is colder and nights are longer. The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Days become longer and nights become shorter slowly until around 21st June – the summer solstice (longest day of the year).
Over millennia, worldwide people have celebrated the winter solstice in a variety of different ways. Some ancient civilisations carried out festivals to mark the day and some modern cultures still do…
In some areas of Europe, the festival of ‘Yule’ is a time of celebration for the winter solstice. Rings of evergreen branches are given away as gifts. They are believed to symbolise friendship and hung up in houses to offer protection. Others believe they are a symbol of the eternal life cycle. People light candles and burn large ‘yule logs’ in an effort to persuade the Sun to come back.
In China, the winter solstice celebration is called ‘Dongzhi’ and means ‘winter arrives’. It is believed that it began as a harvest festival many thousands of years ago. In modern times, families still celebrate by gathering together and eating special foods, for example ‘tang yuan’ which are sweet and colourful rice balls.
In Iran, the Persian sun god called Mithra is the focus of the winter solstice celebrations. The name for their festival is ‘Yalda’ and has evolved over numerous years. In the past, people stayed up all night, telling stories and drumming until sunrise. These days, families still spend time together celebrating through the night talking and eating special Yalda foods, for example pomegranates and watermelon.
Soyal is the name of the Hopi Native Americans’ winter solstice in North America. Prayers are offered, dances performed and gifts are given. It is believed by the Hopis that some friendly spirits called ‘Kachinas’ bring the Sun back on that day.
Throughout history, archaeologists and historians have developed theories that several monuments across the world were specifically built for the winter solstice. The Nazca Lines in Peru are widely considered to be ‘paths’ encouraging certain communities to gather at specific mounds during the winter solstice.
Closer to home, Stonehenge in Salisbury in the UK, is believed to have been erected to mark the shortest days and the longest days. Experts think that the ancient stones have been specifically laid to mark both solstices. Archaeologists have found evidence of numerous winter solstice feasts on the site during past excavations.
The winter solstice has long been a fascination for various cultures over thousands of years. The themes of ‘renewal’ and the returning of light are celebrated all over the world and have evolved over time. In fact, Christmas Carols are thought to have originated from the winter solstice. During the centuries before Christianity spread throughout Europe, many communities sung songs during their winter solstice celebrations. Several historians believe that these songs were responsible for the birth of carols.
Fingers crossed, you’ve had some snow wherever you are on this winter solstice. Those beautiful winter horizons with low sun sure are picturesque with a layer of snowflake frosting…