The Big Think

December 21, 2003

Dark Days

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 2:59 pm

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of our year. What’s the solstice? Well, if you pay attention to where the sun sets every night, you’ll notice that it changes positions each sunset, slowly drifting along the horizon as the year goes on. I was especially aware of this when I had a nightly piano gig for seven years. Since the restaurant was on the top floor of a 7 story building (the second highest in town), I had an unobstructed view of the sunset each night, and would watch it change position through the seasons. I pay particular attention to this phenomenon now as the window in our shower faces west. During the summer, if I take a shower in the late afternoon, I have the blazing summer sun blinding me as it cooks me through the window. In the wintertime, when it would be nice to have some extra heat, the sun is much farther to the south and doesn’t get in my eyes.
The Winter Solstice is that day of the year (usually around December 22) when the sun describes its southern-most arc in the sky and sets at its most southerly position. Because the sun describes its shortest line across the sky-it’s above the horizon for the shortest period of time- the winter solstice is also the shortest day of the year. For us, that is. While this day marks the official beginning of winter for those of us in the northern hemisphere, folks in the southern hemisphere are marking the summer solstice and basking in the balmy rays of the longest day of their year- and the first day of their summer. Yup, in Australia, Christmas is t-shirt weather and students go snow skiing during “summer break”.
Pay attention to where the sun sets tonight. For the next 6 months, the sun will set slightly farther to the right each night, gradually getting in my eyes more and more as I take an afternoon shower. Sunset will also take place about 4 minutes later each night because it has to take a slightly longer trip across our sky.
Cool, no?
Interestingly, much of our holiday festivities have a history bound to the solsti. The Christian holiday (holy-day) of Christmas is celebrated very close to the winter solstice not because that’s the exact date of Christ’s birth (we don’t have a clue when that day was), but because early Christians wanted to repurpose some of the pagan holidays of their times. Indeed, the idea of the Christmas tree was taken from the pagan practice of decorating a sturdy evergreen tree with berries, rosebuds, and cinnamon sticks. The tree represented survival in the dark days of winter and hope that summer would come again. It’s very interesting to me how once-pagan practices have become thoroughly Christianized and absorbed into our culture.
And meanwhile, the sun marches on.

Powered by WordPress