Good morning and welcome to winter. Not to get all dark at the beginning of the article but it is the shortest day of the year, meaning if you began watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy just before sunrise, it will be dark again by the end of the third movie.
Let us beat a hasty retreat. Jump into a hole, down to a cozy warren, deep below the surface.
Winter is as much about going deep, as it is about finding our way back out the other side.
The astronomical metaphor to keep in mind during these dark and chilling times is that starting the day after the winter solstice each day gets a bit longer. It’s only by two or three minutes—too incremental to notice—and yet brightness is accumulating every day as the season progresses.
Norwegians—among the happiest people on earth despite living in such extended periods of darkness—have a word that snugly wraps up this winter philosophy: “koselig” (pronounced “koosh-lee”). It’s a combination of coziness and a connection to nature and others.
For the past six months, the days have grown shorter and the nights have grown longer in the Northern Hemisphere. But that’s about to reverse itself.
Winter solstice 2022, the shortest day of year and the official first day of winter, is on Wednesday, December 21. How it all works has fascinated people for thousands of years.
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First we’ll look at the science and precise timing behind the solstice. Then we’ll explore some ancient traditions and celebrations around the world.
Solstices happen every June and December, though the exact dates vary by a day or two each year.
The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stop—which reflects our host star’s seemingly brief pause in the sky on the solstice before reversing direction.
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun appears at its most southerly position, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn.
The situation is the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the December solstice marks the longest day of the year—and the beginning of summer in places such as Australia, Chile, and South Africa.
The solstice usually—but not always—takes place on December 21. The time that the solstice occurs shifts every year because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same spot as seen from Earth) doesn’t exactly match up to our calendar year.
If you want to be super-precise in your observations, the exact time of the 2022 winter solstice will be 16:48 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on Tuesday, according to EarthSky.org and Farmers’ Almanac.
Daylight decreases dramatically the closer you are to the North Pole. Residents of Nome, Alaska, will be sunlight deprived with just three hours, 54 minutes, and 31 seconds of very weak daylight on Tuesday. But that’s downright generous compared with Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It sits inside the Arctic Circle and won’t see a single ray of sunshine.
The equinoxes, both spring and fall, occur when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator. On those two days, everyone has an equal length of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are farthest north over the Tropic of Cancer giving us our longest day and the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
It’s no surprise many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday—whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, or pagan festivals—that coincides with the return of longer days.
Since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations and rituals in various societies around the world.
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Ancient peoples whose survival depended on a precise knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal, a shedding of bad habits and negative feelings and an embracing of hope amid darkness as the days once again begin to grow longer.
Many of the ancient symbolsand ceremonies of the winter solstice live on today or have been incorporated into newer traditions.
For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer, and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.
With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year and the yearly cycle begins again.
Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins indicate they took a keen interest in the sun’s movement. In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice.
An all-night ceremony then begins including kindling fires, dancing, and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.
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The UK’s most famous site for solstice celebrations is Stonehenge. On the winter solstice, visitors traditionally have had opportunity to enter the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony run by local pagan and druid groups.
Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden