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The Winter Solstice

Labyrinth of Light

"Labyrinth of Light" by Visible Hand is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Happy Winter Solstice!

In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice will occur on Monday, December 21, 2020 at 5:02 a.m. EST.  At that moment, the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere.  We will have our shortest day and longest night of the year, after which the days begin to lengthen.  A little extra daylight each day is something to celebrate! 

This year’s solstice brings a rare celestial phenomenon – something not seen since the Middle Ages.  Jupiter and Saturn will appear almost to collide, forming a “Christmas star.” From Earth’s viewpoint, Jupiter and Saturn are appearing to move very close to one another and will look like a double planet when they are lined up (only a tenth of a degree apart) on Dec. 21 — the date of the winter solstice.  (While they align from Earth’s viewpoint, they are of course far apart in our solar system.) Some astronomers believe that the “star of Bethlehem” was a similar conjunction of three planets:  Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.[1] 

Winter Solstice facts

Solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because the angle between the Sun’s rays and the plane of the Earth’s equator (called declination) appears to stand still.  At the winter solstice, the apparent position of the Sun reaches its most southerly point against the background stars.[2]

The solstice is an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun.  Because the Earth is tilted on its axis by 23 1/2 degrees, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly, and as a result we have winter and summer. At the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun for the year.[3]

Arctic Circle

Image from The Farmers’ Almanac [4]

Winter Solstice traditions

Meteorologists, who base their seasons on temperature and climatological patterns, call December 21st the first day of winter and some cultures call the winter solstice Midwinter.  Astronomically, the solstice marks the return to more sunlight.  For millennia, people around the world have celebrated the end of darker days, the promise of lighter days to come, and nature’s continuing cycle with feasts, festivals and holidays around the December Solstice.[5] 

  • Christmas, celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25th
  • Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is a week-long Jewish festival celebrating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah
  • Kwanzaa is an African-American festival celebrated from December 26th to the New Year and derives from matunda ya kwanza (“first fruits”) which is connected to first fruits festivals celebrated in Southern Africa, where it is the summer solstice
  • The Dongzhi Festival (winter solstice) is celebrated in Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese cultures.
  • Shab-e Yalda or Shab-e Chelleh is an Iranian festival celebrated on the ‘longest and darkest night of the year,’ when friends and family gather to eat, drink and read poetry until the early hours.[6]
  • Before the Christian Era, there was a Scandinavian Feast of Juul, during which fires were lighted and a Yule log was burned in honor of Thor
  • Alban Arthan (Welsh for light of winter) is an ancient festival celebrating the idea that the Old Sun dies and the Sun of the New Year is born. Newgrange (built in Ireland around 3200 BC) is for the winter solstice what Stonehenge is for the summer solstice.[7]
  • Saturnalia was a weeklong festival held by the ancient Romans to honor Saturn, the father of the gods
  • The Zuni (one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in New Mexico) celebrate the solstice with a ceremonial dance called Shalako.  In Arizona, the Hopi also hold a ceremony of Soyal, in which the sun is ceremonially brought back from slumber.[8]
  • In Cusco, Peru, a group of Incas revived the ancient celebration Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”), which takes place in June because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere.[9]
Stonehenge

Stonehenge in winter.  "CIMG0271" by Chris Funderburg is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A time for looking forward

Why wait until January 1st to make New Year’s resolutions?  We are all hoping next year will bring good things.  Why not resolve now to try to be as healthy and happy as possible? 

Here are some things to do to lighten up as the days start to lengthen. 

You can lighten your mood by getting outside in the sunshine (however weak) and ride a bike, take a walk, or play in the snow, because spending 20 minutes connecting with nature can help lower stress hormones.[10]  For those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the long, sunny days can’t get here fast enough, but knowing that every day is bringing more light should help.  If you do have SAD, try using a light box with 10,000-lux exposure for at least 30 minutes a day, ideally in the morning.[11]  Take time to do things that bring you pleasure, like playing with your pet, reading, painting, listening to music, dancing, zooming with friends and family.  Make a fire in your fireplace or an outdoor fire pit.  Reach out to someone you know is alone or lonely – you might find it makes you feel better too.

You can strengthen your muscles and bones AND burn extra calories (and lighten up physically) by carrying weights on your walk or raking leaves instead of blowing them.  Aim to get at least 35 minutes a day of brisk walking or other moderate activities.[12]  For gardeners, even if the ground where you live is frozen, it’s never too early to think about your garden – develop a schedule for starting seeds indoors or in a greenhouse or cold frame.

Getting some exercise, making sleep a priority, and planning ahead for stressful events are important for lowering cortisol levels in the blood that make you want to eat more and gain weight more easily.[13]  Focusing on eating foods that are healthy for you and taste good has a double benefit -- replacing empty calories as well as adding valuable ones. Don’t try to lose weight overnight – just take baby steps to healthier eating.  Increase the good foods (fruits, vegetables, and seafood) and you won’t eat as many of the bad ones. For a good variety of vitamins and minerals, eat a rainbow of foods (e.g., mangoes, broccoli, butternut squash, and salmon)[14] and add spices for flavor and health benefits.[15]  Especially now, when the sun is out for such a short time, getting enough vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) is important – foods high in vitamin D include fortified milk and cereals and fatty fish.[16] 

Celebrate the Winter Solstice with seafood!

Winter Solstice Dawn

  

"Winter solstice dawn over Llanrug" by Eric Jones is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

 

 

[1]  https://www.wsls.com/news/local/2020/12/06/rare-christmas-star-will-light-up-the-sky-on-winter-solstice/

[2]  https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/when-winter-solstice

[3]  https://earthsky.org/?p=2951

[4]  https://www.farmersalmanac.com/winter-solstice-first-day-winter

[5]  https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice-customs.html

[6]  https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/when-winter-solstice

[7]  https://www.farmersalmanac.com/winter-solstice-first-day-winter

[8]  https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/winter-solstice

[9]  https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/winter-solstice

[10]  https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/a-20-minute-nature-break-relieves-stress

[11]  https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/is-my-winter-mood-change-due-to-seasonal-affective-disorder

[12]  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/well/move/exercise-sitting-longevity.html

[13]  https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/simple-strategies-to-stop-stress-related-overeating

[14] Nutrition Action Healthlettter (2020). Center for Science in the Public Interest. www.NutritionAction.com

[15]  https://www.sizzlefish.com/pages/spice-up-your-seafood

[16]  https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-best-foods-for-vitamins-and-minerals