5 Things You May Not Know About the Winter Solstice

Even amidst all the depressing news we are surrounded by, the winter solstice gives us a perfect reason to celebrate: whatever is happening in the political world, nature keeps going on her course.

This year, the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere will begin on Thursday, December 21 at 5:28 ET in the U.S., or 16:28 UTC. This is the longest night, or the shortest day, of the year and occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, or 23.5 ° south latitude. 

You probably know that the earth orbits the sun on a tilted axis and that in the Northern Hemisphere peak sunlight happens between June 20 and 22, on the summer solstice, while in the Southern Hemisphere peak sunlight occurs between December 20 and 22, for their summer solstice.

But here are some fascinating facts about the magical time of the winter solstice that you may not know.

1. “Solstice” Translates to “Sun Standing Still.” 

The word “solstice” comes from the Latin word “solstitium,” which translates to “sun standing still.” That’s because on this day the sun appears to stop at the Tropic of Capricorn. Solstice refers to this brief moment: it’s the exact time the sun reaches its southernmost point from the equator in December and its northernmost point in June. The word “sunturn” is also used to describe this event.

2. Even Though It’s the Darkest Day of the Year, Winter Solstice Celebrations Focus on Light.

For many people worldwide, the winter solstice is all about welcoming the return of the sun, when the darkness begins to turn to light. This festival has been celebrated around the world for thousands of years as a glimmer of hope for the future. In China, the Donghzi Festival takes place on the winter solstice when families get together for a special feast. The Talmud calls the winter solstice “Tekufat Tevet.

3. Christianity Co-Opted the Winter Solstice.

In the pagan tradition, the Goddess gives birth to a son, the God, at Yule, which is around December 21.  The winter solstice has been honored as a time of divine births for a long time: in Persia, Mithras was said to have been born at this time and in ancient Egypt the date marked the birth of Horus. Following this tradition, the Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun”, and in the year 273, the Christian church chose this day to represent the birth of Jesus. This made it easy for the crossover from honoring pagan forces to worshipping Jesus and Christianity

4. Parts of Alaska Won’t See the Sun Rise For Another Month.

In parts of northern Alaska, “sunset” lasts about 67 days — starting November 18 and ending January 23. On the winter solstice in Fairbanks, total daylight lasts less than 4 hours. Southern regions get more daylight.

Here’s a wonderful time-lapse video of the winter solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska, which gets just about three hours and 41 minutes of daylight at this time.

5. Solstice Celebrations Around the World Include Bathing, Chanting and Dancing.

In Japan, this is an especially sacred time of the year for famers, as the sun returns to help their crops grow after the long winter. As in other traditions, the Japanese light huge bonfires to encourage the sun to come back. Hot baths are a way of life in Japan, and a common practice at the time of the winter solstice is to infuse the baths with yuzu, a fruit which is believed to ensure good health.

The Zuni People of western New Mexico in the U.S. mark the winter solstice with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. They spend time preparing themselves by fasting and praying for several days before the solstice, which they see as the beginning of the year. On the day of the solstice the Sun Priest declares the exact moment of the rebirth of the sun with a long call. Then 12 kachina clowns dance with the Shalako, seen as messengers from the gods, who are 12 foot-high effigies with bird heads. The dancing lasts for four days!

winter-solstice-sunrise

Photo Credit: Mark Grant via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most famous solstice event happens when thousands of Druids and Pagans gather at Stonehenge in England, one of my favorite places in the world, to chant and dance while awaiting the sunrise at the winter solstice. The prehistoric site is believed to have been constructed between 3000 BCE and 2000 BCE, but no one has been able to solve the mystery of how those enormous stones got there. 

How will you celebrate the winter solstice?

 

Photo Credit: thinkstock

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