It is weirdly comforting to know that this year, 2020, after all the chaos and upheaval the winter solstice is here. It’s a good time to reflect, be thankful and take note that however bad we may think things are or have been, at least the world is still turning. Our predictable sequence of seasons is still underway.
I’ve always been a little bit ignorant of the actual mechanics of the seasons. I vaguely understand how it all works and what the significance of the yearly solstices are to us living here on Earth. The shortest day signifies the slow march back towards longer summer days, fresh foods and warmer weather.
Solar time in ancient cultures
Our ancestors, who lived with far fewer distractions than we do, were more keenly alert to the changing seasons. Their lives were also affected by them to a much greater extent. Many ancient cultures planned their years and customs around the solar calendar.
It is thought the ancient Egyptians were the first people to develop the solar calendar around 2510 BC. The adoption of an accurate calendar was necessary to plan their many celebrations and religious ceremonies.
In ancient Egypt, the summer solstice was of great importance. It signalled the rising of the star Sirius and marked the beginning of summer. The summer season brought with it the yearly flooding of the river Nile, which was a vital source of irrigation and fertility in the dry desert landscape.
The vast temple complex of Karnak, which began construction around 2000 BC, is built in alignment with the winter solstice sunrise. The first rays of sun, after the longest night of the year, perfectly illuminate the entrance and the huge columns of this famous ancient site.
The ancient Egyptians were far from the only culture to note the significance of the yearly solstices. Many European, Asian and Mesoamerican cultures also have ancient sites that are geographically aligned with this important yearly sunrise.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines in Peru, Chichen Itza in Mexico, and Stonehenge in the United Kingdom are all built in relation to the position of the rising sun at this time of year.
What happens during a solstice
The word solstice comes from the Latin word “solstitium” which translates to “sun standing still.” On the days around the solstice, the sun is at its lowest angle in the sky. It appears to stand still at this level for a few days, then slowly reverses direction.
There are two solstices each year – they mark the shortest and longest days. One falls in June when the sun is directly above the Tropic of Cancer. The other in December when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
In the astronomical calendar, the longest day marks the beginning of summer and the shortest day the beginning of winter. The shortest day follows the longest night, which this year, falls on the 21st of December.
Because the Earth spins on a tilted axis, the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres. In June, the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, and the southern hemisphere away from the sun.
The astronomical calendar is based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Most often, the summer solstice will fall on the 20th or 21st of June, and the winter solstice will fall on the 21st or 22nd of December. This means dates of the astronomical calendar vary from year to year.
During the summer solstice, the sun travels its longest path through the sky, which gives us the longest day and most daylight hours. There are two more noteworthy points of the year – the spring and fall equinoxes. An equinox is a day that has equal length of sunlight and darkness.
Meteorologists prefer to use what is called the meteorological calendar, whose seasons always begin on the first day of the calendar month. This makes it simpler to collect data and make calculations related to meteorological events. In the meteorological calendar, the summer season begins on the 1st of June and the winter season on the 1st of December.
Who still celebrates the winter solstice around the world?
The solstice is still celebrated by many cultures around the world. In many countries, it has long been overshadowed by Christmas as the major winter festival. It is not totally coincidental that these two events happen within a few days of each other.
It is thought that the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which occurred from the 17th of December, was consolidated with the local pagan traditions of the people and lands they occupied. Saturnalia included lots of feasting, drinking and gift giving, and likely led to the modern celebration of Christmas as we know it.
In one of these territories, the winter solstice is still celebrated every year at one of the world's most ancient religious sites. Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, receives thousands of visitors, including modern day pagans and druids, each year to witness the solstice.
The Dongzhi, which means winter's extreme, is celebrated throughout Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. This is a time for families to gather, celebrate and eat traditional foods such as “tangyuan,” a type of sweet or savory rice balls. In Taiwan, they give food offerings on the solstice as a way of honoring their ancestors.
In Santo Tomas, Guatemala, the winter solstice celebrations are continued by the indigenous people in the way their ancestors did before Spanish rule with ceremonial dances, costumes and ceremonies.
In ancient times, the winter solstice marked the death and rebirth of the sun. The end of one cycle and the beginning of another. It was also the beginning of the winter months, a time of extreme hardship and hunger for many people.
In some ways, it is a shame that many of us have lost our understanding of why this specific day of the year was so important to our ancestors. We forget why the cycle of seasons and the journey of our small blue planet on its steady, predictable path remains so important to each of us still.
We depend on these cycles for our food and for our survival, just as they did. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that everything else can easily stop. It’s about time we started paying attention again.