At this rolling time of the year we look forward to the beginning of winter. This year it will occur in central Michigan on December 21 at 6:11 am. This is when the Earth’s tilt of 23.5 degrees points its axis directly away from the Sun. It is this tilt that causes our seasons. The sun will appear directly overhead along the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. With the Earth’s North Pole at its maximum tilt from the sun, locations north of the equator see the sun follow its lowest and shortest arc across the southern sky. For the next six months, the days again grow longer as the sun spends more time above the horizon.
Places on or north of the Arctic Circle will be in total darkness. Those on or south of the Antarctic Circle will receive 24 hours of sunshine. The sun will appear directly overhead along the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south of the equator.
December 21 is the shortest day of the year for us with about ten hours of daylight. The earliest sunset for us was on December 7. The perihelion (closest point to the Sun in our elliptical orbit) occurs around January 3rd at about 147 million km. This is a little over 88 million miles.
Astronomers have refined the degrees into minutes, seconds, and highly accurate decimal places. Because the Earth wobbles slightly on its axis, due to problems of indigestion (that magma rumbling around is a pain), the times and degrees change from year to year.
In the Northern Hemisphere the Winter Solstice was taken seriously by the ancients, leading to a number of festivals to coax the gods into bringing back the sun and warmth. The Saturnalia was a major event for the Romans, with lots of drinking, gift-giving, bonfires, candles, and feasts. It lasted from three to seven days depending on the whims of the Emperor and economic conditions. Saturn was the creator of man in the Golden Age, where there was no winter. He was ousted by his son, Jupiter and life went downhill from there.
Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights and is symbolized by the candelabrum known as the menorah. It celebrates an incident in Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE. The Syrians occupied Jerusalem. During the conflict, the temple's menorah, or ritual lamp, was running out of oil. Although it only had fuel enough for one night, the lamp burned brightly for eight nights until help could arrive. Hanukkah was not a particularly important holiday until modern times. It has always been a popular part of Jewish identity, and families play games, eat certain foods, and light a new candle of the menorah each night. This year Hanukkah lasted from November27 through December 5.
Dies Natalis Solis Invicti means “the birthday of the unconquered Sun”. In what is now Iran, the Zoroastrians worshipped Mithras, who was created by the chief god, Ahura-Mazda, to save the world. This festival was celebrated in his honor by Roman soldiers who occupied the land. In 274 CE the Roman emperor, Aurelian, made it an official cult holiday alongside the many other Roman holidays.
Brumalia was a Greek winter holiday associated with Dionysus and wine. By the time of this winter holiday the wine was ready to be poured into jars for drinking. Although a Greek holiday, the name Brumalia is from the Latin for Winter Solstice. (N.S. Gill, www.About.com .)
For one and all, enjoy the Winter Solstice!