What a time of year this is. What a time to celebrate. Hanukkah begins at sunset today, the winter solstice occurs at 12:30 a.m. Thursday, the 12 days of Christmas begin Sunday, Dec. 25 and Kwanzaa begins Monday, Dec. 26. Wikipedia lists 39 different cultural celebrations that occur during the time of the winter solstice, from Amaterasu, a Japanese solstice celebration of the return of the sun goddess Amaterasu, to the Latvian ghost season of Ziemassv¿tki. Humans have been celebrating the winter solstice for tens of thousands of years.
Ancient stone barrows and alignments like New Grange and Stonehenge in Ireland and Britain, the sacred Huaca de Chena in Chile, and the Sun Dagger site on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, are just a few of hundreds of neolithic winter solstice sites from around the world. Before central heating and polar fleece, humans were keenly aware of the movements of the sun, moon and stars. It was the way they told time and anticipated seasons. Observing the winter solstice created hope through assurance that the days were about to get longer, and in the near future, milder.
There’s a clear, concise video explaining the significance of the New Grange solstice mound in Ireland at www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0MCWL3wcis&feature=related. You can also find this by simply going to Youtube and entering “magical Newgrange” in the search box.
So, what is the winter solstice? In our neck of the woods, winter solstice occurs when the axial tilt of Earth’s north polar region is farthest away from the sun. That does not mean, however, that the Earth is now farthest away from the Sun. In fact, at winter solstice, the Earth’s elliptical orbit brings it closer to the sun than at any other time of the year. This proximity also makes Earth move faster around the sun.
During what seems like the endless cold days of February, you can take (small) consolation in the thought that winter lasts only 89 days, whereas summer last 92.8 days. But without sophisticated measurements, how did Neolithic humans know the time of the solstice? Aware as they were of the apparent daily movement of the sun north and south along the horizon, those people also realized that twice a year, at the sun’s furthest point north or south, it appeared not to change position in relation to the horizon for three days, in Latin sol sistere, the sun stands still.
Once the time of the solstice was known ancient cultures set up sighting structures in sacred areas so that, in relation to a specific perspective, the time of the solstice could be observed every year. Cattle that could not be fed through the winter were slaughtered for food. The alcoholic beverages made from harvested grains were thoroughly fermented; new winter clothing was crafted—party time!
You can set up your own winter solstice observation mark, easily, if the sky is clear this Thursday morning. Sunrise Thursday should be about 7:51 a.m. Observe the sunrise and find a place where a beam of sunlight touches a feature of your home or the landscape around it. Mark that spot in whatever way you feel appropriate. Next year, on the same day, at the same time, you’ll be able to greet the Winter Solstice sunrise from your own personal observatory, confident in the knowledge that the days are getting longer and spring is on the way.
And if you want a little verse to go along with your observance, here’s a short poem by Oliver Herford called, “I Heard a Bird Sing:”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.