The Golden Light of a Winter Solstice

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
― John Steinbeck

On December 21, 2016 at 10:44 Universal Time, the Sun reaches the December solstice, its most southern point on the ecliptic. This marks the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and the first day of summer in the southern hemisphere.

The word solstice means to ‘stand still’ since the Sun seems to remain stuck at its southerly location for quite some time before it resumes its daily motion northward. The December solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and the longest in the south.

The long nights around solstice are a boon for stargazers, though few are keen enough to endure a 15-16 hour observing session, or even longer at more northerly latitudes, in the frigid night air of late December. But the long shadows during the short hours of golden daylight are a splendid sight and highly prized on a bleak midwinter day. At latitudes above 66.5º north, the Sun does not rise at all on the day of the solstice. But just south of this latitude, the Sun skims the horizon for a few hours before setting again. The video above shows a compressed day in Fairbanks, Alaska (latitude 64.8ºN) at December solstice in 2012.

Many ancient northern cultures celebrated the long sweet days at the beginning of summer at the June solstice each year. But they also celebrated the dark days of the December solstice because it marked the turn of the natural cycles of the sky when the days started getting longer. The northern winter solstice was celebrated by pagan cultures as a day of hope and purity. The time was eventually adopted by Christianity to mark the birth of its central figure. Symbols of life, such as boughs of evergreen, were adopted to remind us of the continuation of life during the darkest month of the year. And the yule log, a tradition that dates back to 12th-century northern Europe, reminds us of warmth and light, although some historians suggest it was a replacement for the ancient pagan ritual of human sacrifice.

An original Christmas tree? Legend tells that Martin Luther conceived the idea of a Christmas tree when he saw starlight streaming through the boughs of an evergreen on a cold December night. Image credit: Brian Ventrudo.

An original Christmas tree? Legend tells that Martin Luther conceived the idea of a Christmas tree when he saw starlight streaming through the boughs of an evergreen on a cold December night. Image credit: Brian Ventrudo/CosmicPursuits.com

In time, evergreen trees and light were combined into what we now call the Christmas Tree when the otherwise dour Martin Luther, in the early 16th century, on his way home from stirring up the Reformation, glimpsed the brilliant winter stars through the boughs of a fir tree. Eager to show his family what he saw, he cut down a small tree, carried it home, and placed small candles upon the tree to simulate the effect of starlight streaming through the branches of an evergreen. At least that’s the legend.

I must confess that my own interest in light– and stars– developed not under a dark and clear winter sky but at the foot of the family Christmas tree when I was five years old. I was completely beguiled by the tiny and colorful points of light. When I learned of the tiny points of light in the sky, of their countless number and immense distance and power, I was smitten by starlight and remain so until this day. But it all started with a Christmas tree.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, enjoy the light of the long days of summer, and enjoy your holiday barbecue on the beach. And for you fellow northerners, stay warm and curious and hopeful. The cycles of the world always move us, eventually, from darkness to light.

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