December 21st is the shortest day of the year. You probably are asking, “What do you mean the shortest day of the year? Aren’t there 24 hours in every day?” Absolutely, but allow me to be more specific. December 21st is the date in which there was less daylight hours than any other day in 2011. It is the time of the winter solstice – which in Central Standard Time will occur around 11:30 p.m. this year. The winter solstice usually occurs sometime between December 21 and December 23 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the time of the year when the North Pole is tilted at its greatest distance, 23.5 degrees, away from the sun. The winter solstice also signifies the first day of winter. At the time of the autumnal equinox, September 23rd, daylight and dark were equal in length at 12 hours each. Since then, in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight has progressively decreased with each day. In fact, territories north of the Arctic Circle will experience 24 hours of darkness upon the winter solstice. It is important to mention this seasonal phenomenon is reverse for the Southern Hemisphere. For example, the territory south of the Antarctic Circle will experience 24 hours of daylight on December 21st. And, in the areas between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the balance of daylight and dark hours remains stable and the weather warm and humid. (Thus the reason we must mimic the 12 hours of darkness for native tropical photoperiodic plants such as the Christmas Cactus and Poinsettia to force their blooms/bracts in our part of the world!)
If you’ve done any reading or research about ancient cultures, you are familiar with the fact they viewed the transitions between the seasons as very important. The solstices and equinoxes determined when crops should be planted and harvested, when berries and nuts became ripe and when certain game could be hunted. The winter solstice, in particular, marked the time ancient peoples were to begin preparing and storing food and supplies, obtained from their autumn harvests and hunts, in anticipation of the next three months of cold weather. Ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Druids, Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans, Phoenicians and Romans, among others, erected incredibly accurate temples, pyramids, monuments and calendars that assisted their villages in knowing when the seasonal changes were occurring. Stonehenge, in the photo above, is an example of such a structure. The photo below is of the Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. It is a mounded tomb structure that is estimated to have been built in 3200 BC. There is a roof box over the entrance of the tomb which at sunrise during the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight breaks through and illuminates the entire interior of the structure.
As with human rites of passage, celebrations and feasts were a major aspect of the ancient seasonal transitions as well, especially during the winter solstice. Fruit and nuts were plenty, beer and wine were fermented and animals thought not to survive through the winter were slaughtered. Food was in abundance at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere and feasting was done in preparation for potentially 90 days of sparse sustenance. Festivities surrounding mid-winter holidays certainly continue in most cultures of the world today. In fact, Julius Caesar deemed December 25th the date of the winter solstice in early Roman times. And as most of you know, later on, the Christian church adopted this sacred date in honor of the birth of Christ.
In conclusion, you may ask why I have titled this post, Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope, when it apparently marks the time of anticipated harsh, cold weather. As I pondered all the reasons, the scientific one came to mind first. Every day after December 21st brings more sunlight. The ancients knew if they prepared what food and supplies they could for the coming of winter and feasted on that which remained, each day they survived offered them more sunlight and eventual warmth. Hope simply helped them endure the season of long bitter nights and barren days. In today’s world, the winter solstice falls at the time of year (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa) when most of us, no matter our religious persuasion, strive to mend relationships, are charitable to those in need, and reflect on our personal blessings. It is a time of faith and observance and thanksgiving. It is a time we come together to congratulate and to celebrate. It is a time we come together and mourn those no longer with us – yet we remain determined to continue the traditions that have become all the more meaningful in our loved ones’ absence. It is a time we deeply reflect upon our life and muster the determination to live better physically, emotionally and spiritually in the coming year.
As a Christian, I believe the date of the Roman winter solstice was purposefully chosen to represent Christmas Day, as the spirit of Christmas signifies great hope for all mankind. No matter your faith or circumstances, I wish you the amazing experience of hope this winter season.
Until next time,
This post is dedicated to my nephew, Vincent, who was born 13 years ago on the shortest day of the year!