A Day To Talk About: December 21st!
Let’s talk about December 21, as some consider it the most magical time of the year. Lots of wedding and engagements happen on this day of the year.
Dec. 21: The Winter Solstice Explained:
For northern latitudes, the solstice marks the beginning of winter, but ancient Sky Watchers didn’t understand the sun’s migration, fearing it could disappear forever as it dipped below the horizon.
At 6:12 a.m. EST on Friday (Dec. 21), the sun will reach a point where it will appear to shine farthest to the south of the equator, over the Tropic of Capricorn, thus marking the moment of the winter solstice — the beginning of winter.
Since June 20, the altitude of the midday sun has been lowering as its direct rays have been gradually migrating to the south.
The sun’s altitude above the horizon at noontime is 47 degrees lower now, compared to six months ago. Your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures roughly 10 degrees, so the sun at midday is now nearly “five fists” lower in the southern sky compared to on June 21.
The ancient Sky Watchers had no understanding of the sun’s migration; they thought this celestial machinery might break down someday, and the sun would continue southward, never to return. As such, the lowering of the sun was cause for fear and wonder.
As “armistice” is defined as a staying of the action of arms, “solstice” is a staying of the sun’s apparent motion over the latitudes of the Earth. At the summer solstice, the sun stops its northward motion and begins heading south.
At the winter solstice, it turns north. Technically, at one minute past the moment of the solstice, the sun has turned around and started north. It will cross the equator at the vernal equinox, passing into the Northern Hemisphere on March 20, at 7:02 a.m. EDT. [Top 10 Winter Sky Targets for Sky watchers]
When the ancients saw the sun stop and slowly climb to a higher midday location, people rejoiced; here was a promise that spring would return. Most cultures had winter solstice celebrations and some adapted it to other events. In Persia, the solstice marked the birthday of Mithra, the Sun King.
In ancient times, Dec. 25 was the date of the lavish Roman festival of Saturnalia, a sort of bacchanalian thanksgiving. Saturnalia was celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. And in 275 A.D., the Roman Emperor Aurelian commemorated a feast day coinciding with the winter solstice: Die Natalis Invicti Solis (“The birthday of the Unconquered Sun”).
Among the many varied customs linked with this special season for thousands of years, the exchanging of gifts is almost universal. Mother Nature herself offers the sky observer in north temperate latitudes the two gifts of long nights and a sky more transparent than usual.
One reason for the clarity of a winter’s night is that cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air can. Hence, on many nights in the summer, the warm moisture-laden atmosphere causes the sky to appear hazier. By day it is a milky, washed-out blue, which in winter becomes a richer, deeper and darker shade of blue. For us in northern climes, this only adds more luster to that part of the sky containing the beautiful wintertime constellations.
Indeed, the brilliant stars and constellations that now adorn our evening sky, such as Sirius, Orion, Capella, Taurus, and many others, plus as an added bonus this winter season of the planet Jupiter, all seem like Nature’s holiday decorations to commemorate the winter solstice and enlighten the long cold nights of winter.
The word solstice comes from the Latin sol “sun,” and sistere “to stand still.” So, loosely translated, it means “sun stands still.” Why? The Sun’s path across the sky appears to freeze for a few days before and after the solstice. The change in its noontime elevation is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same or stand still.
The day after the winter solstice, the Sun’s path begins to advance northward again, eventually reaching its most northerly point on the day of the summer solstice.
Then, as summer advances toward winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets advance southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, which occurs at local noon, also moves southward each day. It’s a never-ending cycle!
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year. Is it also the coldest?
The day of the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, which means that it’s the day in which we experience the least amount of daylight. Logically, it would make sense to assume that this is also the coldest day of the year since we are exposed to less warmth-giving sunlight on this day than at any other time. But this is not true.
Many factors affect the temperature of a location on any given day, including altitude, snow cover, and large-scale weather patterns. Snow cover, for example, partially blocks solar radiation from being absorbed by the Earth, which results in less heat being released and an overall drop in temperature. Because of these factors, it’s impossible to point to the same date year after year and call it the coldest day.
In the United States, the coldest days of the year tend to occur between mid-December and late January, so while it’s certainly possible that the coldest day of the year could also be the day of the winter solstice, that’s not usually the case!
Is the Winter Solstice really the start of winter?
There is not a black-and-white answer to this question—it depends on which definition of “winter” you follow:
Astronomical winter begins at the winter solstice and ends at the spring equinox. Astronomical seasons are based on the position of Earth in relation to the Sun.
Meteorological winter (in the Northern Hemisphere) starts on December 1 and ends on February 28 (or 29). Meteorological seasons are based on the annual temperature cycle and climatological patterns observed on Earth.
Because an almanac is traditionally defined as a “calendar of the heavens,” it follow the astronomical definition of the seasons, which states that each of the four seasons starts on a solstice or equinox.
However, that doesn’t mean that the meteorological definition is incorrect. It is important for meteorologists to be able to compare climatological statistics for a particular season from one year to the next—for agriculture, commerce, and a variety of other purposes. Thus, meteorologists break the seasons down into groupings of three months. Meteorological winter starts on December 1 and includes December, January, and February.
Did you know? For the ancient Celts, the calendar was based around the solstices and equinoxes, marking the Quarter Days, with the mid-points called Cross-Quarter Days.
The Magic of December 21:
The Solstice is also the start of a new season depending on where in the world you live, and a new season always brings a transition of energy.
The winter solstice is celebrated by many people around the world as the beginning of the return of the sun, and darkness turning into light. The Talmud recognizes the winter solstice as “Tekufat Tevet.” In China, the Dongzhi Festival is celebrated on the Winter Solstice by families getting together and eating special festive food.
Until the 16th century, the winter months were a time of famine in northern Europe. Most cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn’t have to be fed during the winter, making the solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful. Most celebrations of the winter solstice in Europe involved merriment and feasting. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Feast of Juul, or Yule, lasted for 12 days celebrating the rebirth of the sun and giving rise to the custom of burning a Yule log.
In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated at the Feast of Saturnalia, to honor Saturn, the god of agricultural bounty. Lasting about a week, Saturnalia was characterized by feasting, debauchery and gift-giving. With Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, many of these customs were later absorbed into Christmas celebrations.
Saturnalia was a pagan festival celebrated on the December Solstice, and was meant to be reminiscent of the Golden Age- a time where there was peace on Earth and Saturn was our Sun.
The December Solstice was chosen for this day as it was said to signify a “return to the light.”
The Solstice is a time where the veil between dimensions is thin. It is also a time where we are more open and connected with the energies of the Earth. Hence the magic!