by C.H. Weaver M.D.
Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many few individuals are aware of the approach of the winter solstice. The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year.
The word “solstice” means “sun stands still”.
Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice.
Solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.
As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It’s no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day" or "extreme of winter." Boston will experience ~ 9 and 1/2 hours of sunlight, compared to ~16 hours on the summer solstice. Parts of Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October.
The winter solstice was a time of death and rebirth for ancient cultures.
The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months weighed heavily on early societies. These culture often held solstice celebrations meant to herald the return of the Sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months.
The solstice happens at a specific moment.
Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
The mid winter festival of Saturnalia gradually replaced by Christmas celebrated “reversals” in the Roman Empire.
The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia’s reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.