Though it feels cold enough already, winter only truly began today. December 21st marks the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year, with a depressingly few nine hours of daylight. Thankfully, once it's over, the days will start to get longer and we'll be back to a full twelve hours of light on March 20th, the spring equinox.
Here's some basic science about why December 21st is so briefly lit. The Earth's axis is tilted, so for about half the year, the Northern Hemisphere faces further away from the sun. On December 21st, the Northern Hemisphere is the furthest away from the sun, making it the darkest day of the year--especially for the North Pole where there is an entire 24 hours of darkness!
Solstice celebrations, though taking place on the darkest day, are notoriously bright in atmosphere. Stonehenge is a prime example of this tradition. Built around 2,000 to 3,000 BCE, the constructors of Stonehenge took the sun seriously. The alignment of the stones perfectly frames the ascent of our closest star during the winter solstice. While Stonehenge is still a mystery, remains and artifacts found at the site, make it clear that Stonehenge a burial site and a place of celebration. Feasts and parties took place in recognition of the solar event for many years and thousands of people still flock to Stonehenge every year to observe the midwinter sunrise.
Stonehenge isn't the only of prehistoric solstice appreciation. Nearby Ireland is host to the vast passage tomb, Newgrange. During the winter solstice, the sun passes directly through its single doorway, creating a stream of light through the site. Newgrange dates to around 3,200 BCE and like Stonehenge, human remains were found on its grounds. Perhaps early civilizations found some value in framing their final resting places in light at a particularly dark time of the year.
The winter solstice is a time to celebrate the working of the world and our planet's motion. It's a good opportunity to take a little time out of the nine-hour day to find comfort in the precision and consistency of the Earth's cycles, as a respite from the ups and downs of one's own routine.
- Clio Walton, Environmental Educator