Brrrr! Winter Solstice is Coming

OK, in this part of the country it might not be cold on December 21st. I have raked leaves in 70-degree weather on the winter solstice. Nevertheless, it’s guaranteed to have the fewest daylight hours, and the longest night!

I’m sure you’ve noticed it getting dark earlier and earlier. That really messes up our supper routine. Nancy bases suppertime on when it starts getting dark. Me, I use the clock, and 8-9pm is my goal. So, as you might guess, we have to compromise a little bit.

What is the solstice? They (there are two solstices) mark a place in Earth’s orbit around our life-giving star, the Sun. There is one basic factor that determines the solstice, Earth’s angle of rotation around its axis of 23.4 degrees with respect to the Sun. This causes the Sun, Moon, Planets, all celestial objects to appear to travel in an arc across the sky, vs a straight line relative to the horizon. Where the Sun travels the arc is named the Ecliptic. That arc also results in the Sun getting higher daily in the sky as summer approaches, lower daily in the sky as winter approaches. In solstice speak this means in winter the Sun is at lower declinations (lower in the sky), farther south of the celestial equator, and in summer the Sun is at higher declinations (higher in the sky), farther north of the celestial equator. The celestial equator is the same as Earth’s equator, just projected against the sky.  Oh, minor detail, this is for the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere experiences opposite solstices.

So, as winter approaches, the Sun rises later, stays lower in the southern sky, and sets earlier – all due to that arc, the ecliptic. Years ago, I spent a week in Alaska, north of Nome, in mid-December. That was challenging. It didn’t get light until around 10am and then darkness arrived around 2pm.

A solstice marks Earth’s place in its orbit around the Sun and the turning point for daylight vs nighttime hours. Winter solstice marks the end of fewer daylight hours each day and the beginning of more daylight hours each day. Conversely, summer solstice marks the end of more daylight hours each day and the beginning of fewer daylight hours each day. After December 21 our daylight hours will increase daily until June 21/22, the summer solstice. Let’s celebrate!

Solstice has meaning for cultures. The inhabitants of Britian built Stonehenge and the Incan’s built the Intihuatana (hitching post of the Sun) at Machu Picchu to celebrate mid-winter. The Japanese celebrate Toji, winter solstice, by takin yuzuyu, a hot citrus infused bath, to focus prayer for the new year and sooth the body. Winter Solstice was celebrated in ancient Rome with outrageous parties and festivals called Saturnalia. The timing of Roman Saturnalia was adopted by early Christians in a celebration, later to be called Yule.

In farther-north locations winter solstice is truly a long-cold night.

What’s in the Sky?

December 17; an hour after sunset; south-southeast:  Look for a waxing crescent Moon and Saturn sharing the sky. Should be a pretty sight.

December 21; 9:27pm CST: Winter Solstice