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winter solstice

Photo by Susan Kerr

Nocturnal animals and human night owls may rejoice! On the winter solstice, people can witness the Earth’s longest night and shortest day of the year for their respective hemispheres. For individuals living in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice generally occurs between December 20 and 23 each year. Those in the southern hemisphere experience the winter solstice between June 20 to June 23.

‘Stony Brook Harbor on a Winter Solstice Day’ by Susan Kerr/Dec. 21, 2020

1. Not only will the winter solstice occur on a specific date, it also occurs at a specific time when the Earth’s semi-axis tilts furthest from the sun. This corresponds to when the North Pole is aimed away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis. At this point, the sun also shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. The information and trivia site Mental Floss says the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the plane. However, the hour it occurs depends on your time zone.

2. Areas of the Northern Hemisphere can have varying lengths of day and night on the solstice. For example, New York City may have nine hours and 15 minutes of sunlight on the winter solstice. If that upsets New Yorkers, they may be happy to be outside parts of Finland, some of which get less than six hours of sunlight on the solstice.

3. The word “solstice” is derived from Latin and means “sun stands still.” It was chosen to describe this cosmic phenomenon because the solstice sun seemingly appears in the same position at noontime for several days before and after the winter solstice – at its lowest point in the sky.

4. It is easy to mistake the solstices for the equinoxes, which also occur twice a year. However, the equinoxes occur in fall and spring and mark when the sun is directly above the equator and night and day are of equal length.

5. Despite the winter solstice indicating the beginning of the astrological winter, it may not be the coldest time of the season. Usually those temperatures are reserved for January and February.

6. The Farmer’s Almanac reports that many cultures marked the arrival of the solstice as a time of death and rebirth. Early man also kept track of the days by observing the sun’s position in the sky. In fact, historians believe Stonehenge was created to monitor the sun’s yearly “movement.”

7. Many traditions associated with Christmas originated during Pagan celebrations for the winter solstice. For example, Scandinavians would burn a juul (yule) log in the hearth in honor of the god Thor. Thor’s job was to bring the sun’s warmth back to the people.

While the winter solstice and the lack of sunlight synonymous with it may not be something everyone looks forward to, there is a silver lining. Following the winter solstice, the hours of sunlight gradually increase by the day, eventually paving the way for the spring equinox.

Photo from Pixabay

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

One of my favorite days occurred this week. It is the winter solstice, usually considered to be Dec. 21 or 22. Why do I like that day, you might wonder? Some people think of it negatively as the shortest day of the year. In New York, the night was 14 hours and 45 minutes, shorter than in Minnesota at 15 hours and 50 minutes but longer than Miami at 13 hours and 28 minutes. For me it marks the turning point of the seasons, when each subsequent day then begins to have more light. Darkness will be lifting over the next six months, gradually but definitively. And for COVID-19, the pandemic of the century, it is a perfect metaphor. The vaccine is arriving at winter solstice with the promise that the disease, like the days, will lighten.

The vaccine is the match that will eventually banish the darkness. People all over the world, since the beginning of recorded history, have lit fires to ward off the night. It is not a coincidence that the birth of Jesus is celebrated at this time. Houses and trees are brightly decorated with all manner of lights. Hanukkah candles burn brightly at this same time, and in an 8-day sequence, as if prophesying the gradual lighting up of the days. Diwali is a five-day festival of Hindus, Sikhs and others, pushing back the night and celebrating the coming of more light. 

So will the vaccine, perfectly timed, gradually vanquish the pandemic over the same next few months.

Just as a point of information, I looked up the meaning of winter solstice and found the definition as the time during the earth’s orbit around the sun at which the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. So the other part of the shortest day is the winter season that we have to get through with its long days before we can enjoy more brightness and warmth. And we will also have to endure more illness and death from the novel coronavirus before we can recapture the world as we have known it. We will have to hold on, using our various strategies for survival, until what has been described as the unending “snow days” of lockdown yield to recovery.

Winter can be thought of as a time of intense cold, of scarcity, of starkness and even of death of the earth. But the earth has not died. It is merely resting, and all who live on it are forced to slow down until light and warmth bring growth. For us humans, it can be when we nest with our families, play games, watch movies, tell stories about our ancestors and fill the house with the smells of stick-to-the-rib cooking. Unfortunately, we have been doing just that, unwillingly, for the past 10 months. But the warmth and the light inside the home are especially welcome now that the wind is howling and the snow is sticking. 

When we were in Alaska some years ago, many of the residents we met said that winter was their favorite season, when members of the community come together indoors to socialize and look after each other as the elements rage in the darkness outdoors.

This winter, we will be coming together via zoom and the other miracles of modern technology. As the earth lies fallow, we can just rest. Or we can evaluate our lives and priorities, learn things that, like planted seeds, will flower in the warmth and light of the spring. We can certainly straighten out our closets and desk drawers, if we haven’t already. All the while, we can follow the guidelines of the scientists and physicians and keep ourselves safe for the spring.

This is my last column of the year. The next issue, of 12/31, will be entirely filled with stories about those heroic and tireless residents who kept life going in 2020 and richly deserve to be honored as People of the Year.

We here at TBR News Media wish you and your loved ones holidays that are happy and safe.

We look forward to rejoining you next year.