December 21st is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the shortest day of the year and, correspondingly, the longest night. On the winter solstice, the sun is the farthest south in the sky it will appear and it is the day of the year when the sun reaches its minimum noon altitude. The sun appears to hang at this altitude for a few days, and then turns and begins its journey back northward toward its highest noon altitude – the summer solstice on June 20th or 21st.
These phenomena are more drastic the farther you are from the equator. For example, Bogota, Columbia is just 4 degrees north of the equator. In Bogota on the winter solstice, there will be 11 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. On the summer solstice, Bogota will receive 12 hours and 23 minutes of sunlight. There is only 32 minutes of difference between the shortest day and the longest in Bogota. Let’s compare that to Minneapolis, MN at 44 degrees north. In Minneapolis, we will receive 8 hours and 46 minutes of sunlight on the winter solstice. On the summer solstice, we received 15 hours and 36 minutes of sunlight. So, there is a difference of nearly 7 hours of daylight between the solstices, compared to Bogota’s 32 minutes.
This becomes even more extreme as you go farther north. Let’s head to 71′ N – Barrow, Alaska. The sun will not rise at all in Barrow, Alaska on December 21st. In fact, the sun has not risen in Barrow since November 18. The sun will not rise again until January 23rd, on which day Barrow will receive a welcome one hour and eight minutes of sunlight. They will have gone 65 days since the last sunrise. Conversely, on May 11th, the sun will rise in Barrow at 1:46 a.m. and it will not set again until August 2nd. So, in Barrow, the difference in day length between the winter and summer solstice is 24 hours.
The solstices have been important in human culture for millenia. Imagine yourself living in a world deeply tied to nature and the seasonal cycle. Each day the world has been getting darker and darker. Cold has crept across the land. Nothing is growing. Death and decay seem to be conquering the world. But then, behold! The sun pauses in its sinking journey toward the southern horizon, and it turns back; gradually, the days start growing longer. The cycle of death and rebirth continue once again. This is something to celebrate!
From prehistoric artifacts, we know that the solstices were acknowledged by humans across the world from at least 3200 BCE. Artifacts that show recognition of the solstices have been found across cultures – in Ireland, Indonesia, and Peru, for example. The oldest of these artifacts we’ve discovered comes from Ireland. Just over 30 miles north of Dublin, a prehistoric tomb known as Newgrange overlooks the River Boyne. The tomb was built around 3200 BCE. If you are having trouble placing 3200 BCE in context, this was 500 years before the pyramids were built, a whopping 2400 years before the Greek city states emerged – we’re talking 5000 years ago here.There is a 60 foot passage in this tomb, at the south end of the passage is an opening that the sun shines in only on the winter solstice. On the solstice, the sun illuminates this inner passageway for 17 minutes. You can actually go and visit Newgrange on the winter solstice and witness this phenomenon for yourself, but you’ll have to win their yearly lottery for tickets, as the event is so popular.
Fire is the most wide-spread aspect of winter solstice celebrations. It is easy to see why – what better way to mark the darkest night of the year then by lighting candles and building bonfires? Part of this fire tradition includes the burning of the Yule Log. The roots of the Yule Log are somewhat mysterious, but may have originated in Northern Europe in the 6th century. The Yule Log (perhaps an entire tree in some places) would be burnt on the solstice and should be kept burning throughout the entire night. A portion of the Yule Log would be kept to be burnt in the next year’s fire. On some Yule Logs, a chalk outline of a man was drawn before the log was placed in the fire…perhaps a remnant of human sacrifice made on the solstice?
A simple solstice celebration:
If you would like to celebrate the winter solstice, it is quite easy to put together a simple celebration. I would start by taking advantage of the few hours of daylight that you have on the solstice (unless you are in Barrow, in which case, maybe leave Barrow?) by getting outside. Take your fellow celebrants out for a nature walk in a wooded area and hunt for the perfect Yule Log. What makes a perfect Yule Log? Go with your gut, you’ll know that Yule Log when you see it. Gather your Yule Log and bring it back home. If you have a fireplace, festivities can continue inside, if you prefer. If you are going to be celebrating outside, as the sun is setting (4:34pm here in Minneapolis), get a roaring bonfire going. If you celebrated last year and have a part of the previous year’s log, put that on the fire. Once the old log is burning well, add the new log. When the new Yule Log has just about burnt out, make sure you pull part of it out of the fire to save for next year’s celebration. I love a good poem and a celebration isn’t quite complete without one, in my opinion. As you sit around the fire, have one brave or dramatic soul in your party recite an appropriate poem (there are many). I like this one:
So the shortest day came
and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries
of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
to drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
to keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us — listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day.
As promise wakens in the sleeping land;
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year, and every year.
While it might be traditionally appropriate to keep the fire burning all night long, I’m into sleeping, and it is cold in Minnesota in December. So, I’d recommend putting the fire out when everyone is tuckered. You can bring the party back inside, but – and this is key- don’t turn the lights on. Whatever hours of wakefulness remain should be spent without the use of artificial illumination. How nice to come in from the bonfire and light the house only with candles on the darkest night of the year. What a different atmosphere it will create from the average night! Contemplate the ways that companionship and celebration combat the darkness of the longest night, maybe even more so than the candles and the fire.
If you find the science side of the solstice interesting, you cannot miss the video below. The visualizations are amazing.