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December 21, 2010 > Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice

By Julie Grabowski
Photo courtesy of NASA

The solstice occurs twice each year during the earth's trip around the sun, referring to the sun's position in the sky and the amount of light received by the Earth's Northern and Southern Hemispheres. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice takes place at the end of December with the summer solstice in June. During the winter solstice, the tilt of the earth's axis places the sun at its farthest distance from the celestial equator, providing the Northern Hemisphere with less direct sunlight.

The term solstice comes from the Latin solstitium, "sol" for sun, and "stitium" meaning to stand still.

The sun sits at its lowest point in the sky, giving us the shortest day of the year and marking the beginning of winter. The winter solstice, also known as midwinter and the new solar year, occurs Tuesday, December 21 at 6:38 p.m. EST. And while this solstice promises months of uncomfortable weather, it also brings lengthening days, hinting at a warmer and brighter world of the coming spring.

For many early cultures, the winter months were dreaded and dangerous times, due to the lack of heat and light as well as a limited food supply, all of which threatened survival. Even in modern times most do not relish the cold, dark, and wet that the season brings. Deprivation of sunlight has actually produced an officially recognized mental disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in which people experience depression or moodiness. The only remedy for those suffering from a shortage of sunlight is to fake it - turn up the artificial lights and bask as well as you can. Stringing holiday lights, burning candles, and stoking fires help to create the sense of light, warmth, and cheer from summer memories and dispel the physical and emotional chill of winter.

Many festivities occur during winter, the most prominent being Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year. But many believe that modern celebrations stem from ancient times and pagan traditions centering around the solstice. When the sun began to fade, people feared the gods were displeased, so sought to make them happy by honoring them with feasts and festivals in hopes that they would return the sunlight. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday, lasted from three to seven days and included drinking, bonfires, candles, and gifts, as well as an opportunity for slaves to take a turn as master and masters as slaves. Brumalia was a Greek winter festival in honor of the god Dionysus, which involved much wine drinking and merry making.

While times and events might have changed, ancient and modern holidays do share many of the same celebratory elements including feasts; time with family and friends; the exchanging of gifts; red, green, and white decorations; holiday lights and fires; and the hanging of holly, ivy, evergreen boughs and mistletoe to keep spirits bright.

Most cultures accept winter as a time for withdrawal necessary to renewal, a time to embrace comforts and spend time in reflection, enjoying idle hours and the serenity of home. French Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus said, "In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

Though months of cold weather are still ahead, the winter solstice is a subtle time of transition that speaks of rebirth, renewal, and hope, the promise of spring's return.

Editors Note:
This year, a bonus of the winter solstice is its rare coincidence with a total lunar eclipse visible from North and Central America, northern and western Europe, a portion of northeast Asia, Hawaii and New Zealand. In our time zone (PST), the eclipse began at 10:33 p.m. on December 20th and progressed to totality at 11:41 p.m. At 12:53 a.m. December 21, the moon emerged from the earth's shadow. The midpoint of the eclipse ushered in the first day of winter at 12:17 a.m. on December 21

Additional eclipse information is available at www.nasa.gov

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