This is a reprise, with some editing, of a story I wrote six years ago about the Winter Solstice.
In the northern hemisphere, this is the day with the least amount of sunlight and most hours of darkness.
The southern hemisphere recognizes the December Solstice as their Summer Solstice, the day with most hours of sunlight. The precise moment of Solstice depends on where you are, due to time zone differences. Winter Solstice happened at exactly 10:02 AM GMT all across the Northern Hemisphere. At that moment, the Sun was directly above the Tropic of Capricorn. The transit circle is part of an astronomical telescope’s mechanics. It is also called Zulu Time in aviation circles.
During Winter Solstice, if you go far enough north, the sun never actually rises above the horizon. Light is more akin to dusk at the Sun’s highest elevation in the sky. The converse is true during Summer solstice.
I was in Anchorage, Alaska during the week of Summer Solstice a few years ago. They have a golf tournament that starts about midnight. The reason is that Earth is tilted at exactly 23.5º on its axis, relative to the Sun. Near the Arctic Circle, the earth stays lit to some degree for the full 24 hour day.
The exact time of the solstice varies each year. In the Northern hemisphere the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, because it is tilted away from the sun, and receives the least amount of sunlight on that day.
Curiously, the earliest sunsets and latest sunrises don’t necessarily occur on the Winter Solstice. That is due to a small difference between ‘solar time’ and standard clock settings.
The solstice can happen on December 20, 21, 22 or 23. December 21 is most common, with the 20th and 23rd being most infrequent.
Early civilizations based religion on Sun cycles, and even now, some still do. The sun was seen as both giver and taker of life. Some early civilizations developed surprisingly sophisticated astronomical science long before telescopes were invented. Christmas is believed to have been based on the Pagan celebration of Yule, or the Winter Solstice. After all, the first day of winter is also the day when each day following slowly gets more sunlight, leading to spring and summer.
The story of Jesus is one of redemption and new life, and thus it made sense sense to establish his birthday at the Winter Solstice. Besides, it was a good propaganda move to try and preempt the Pagan holiday, turning it into a Christian celebration.
Some folks don’t understand why the coldest part of winter usually follows the Solstice, if the days are getting longer. That is because the Earth is so huge, it acts as a gigantic heat sink. Once cooled off, it takes many weeks before it can warm up. That is why January and February are typically our coldest months. Once the winter cold cycle gets started, it takes a while to reverse the cooling trend caused by longer nights.
When one lives north of the Arctic Circle, light becomes important at the Winter Solstice. Which leads us to one of the best single scenes from one of the best television shows ever. The “Light” episode from Northern Exposure. I was going to post the video, but due to copyright claims from NBC Universal, it has been blocked on all online videos. Remind me to never spend any money on their products. The scene is the Winter Solstice in the fictional village of Cicely, Alaska. The townspeople gather for Chris’ light show. He introduces it with a wonderful speech about Light:
‘Goethe’s final words: “More Light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry, “More Light.” SunLight. TorchLight. CandleLight. Neon, incandescent Lights that banish the darkness from our caves to illuminate our road, the insides of our refrigerators. Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s Field. Little tiny flashLights for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep. Light is more than watts and footcandles. Light is metaphor. Thy Word is a Lamp unto my Feet. Rage rage against the dying of the Light. Lead, kindly light, amid the circling gloom, Lead thou me on; The night is dark, and I am far from home; Lead thou me on. Arise, shine, for thy light has come. Light is knowledge, Light is life, Light is Light.”
When all the lights are lighted, it is to the sound of Enya, singing Ebudae. The language is Scots Gaelic. In ancient times the western isles of Scotland, the Hebrides, were called Hebudæ or the Ebudæ in Gaelic.