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Celebrating the solstice

Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice.

By Rich_Maloof Dec 21, 2012 3:41PM

Regardless of the religion, ethnicity, or political party you’re associated with, you very likely celebrate a December holiday that revolves around the winter solstice. And what is that exactly?

Photo: YouraPechkin/Getty ImagesA solstice is when the sun appears at its highest, northernmost point relative to the equator (the summer solstice) or its lowest, southernmost point (the winter solstice). The easiest way to think of the winter solstice is that it’s the date when the sun reaches its lowest annual altitude. From the winter solstice forward, the sun will get higher in the sky.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, our winter solstice marks the beginning of winter. That’s because we’ve hit the day that has the fewest hours of sunlight. Depending on the vagaries of our imperfect calendar, this falls somewhere between Dec. 20 and 22. For 2012, it’s Dec. 21.

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There’s a bit of a disconnect in the winter solstice being the shortest day of the year. We expect that longer days with more sunshine will immediately beget warmer days after the solstice. Not true. The Northern hemisphere is still tilted away from the sun for the next few months, until the Equinox, when the Earth’s axis is nearly perpendicular to the sun’s rays. That happens in March, and it’s when life gets warmer in these northern climes. The fact that we’re used to days with more sunlight is exacerbated by daylight savings time, which makes days feel artificially longer.

Back to the celebrations. Even without religious or Hallmark holidays, there have been festivals marking the solstice since the dawn of recorded history. The ancient Romans had the nonstop partyfest of Saturnalia starting on Dec. 17.

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A thousand years ago, the people of what is now Russia celebrated Korochun to keep their ancestors warm during the solstice, the longest night of the year. Hannukah and Kwanzaa are celebrated in the weeks immediately before or after the solstice. The weeks of the Advent calendar lead right up to the solstice — nevermind that Jesus wasn’t actually born on Dec. 25.

See the pattern here? Cultures all over the world appreciate the coming of winter, and not just because they’re following dates on a calendar. The position of the sun and the diminishing light have always signaled this day, and this longest of nights.

Photo: YouraPechkin/Getty Images 

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