The days grow shorter, and darkness is longer than light. It is winter in the Northern hemisphere, and nearing the time when the year takes its final bow with the Winter Solstice. The date is 21/22 December, the day when the path of the sun in the sky is farthest south in the Northern Hemisphere and the Sun travels the shortest path through the sky marking the twenty four hour period with the fewest daylight hours of the year. That is why it is known as the shortest day or longest night of the year. Though the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment in time, it is also popularly used to refer to the day on which it takes place.
Today, we know that the solstice is an astronomical event, caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun. Because Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is instead tilted on its axis by 23 1/2 degrees, Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. The tilt of the Earth – not our distance from the sun – is what causes winter and summer. At the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun for the year.
While 21 December marks the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere marks the same day in the year as its summer solstice, and sees its longest day and shortest night.
The word Solstice itself is rooted in sol, the Latin word for ‘sun’. The ancients added stit (meaning ‘standing’) to sol and came up with solstitium. Middle English speakers shortened solstitium to solstice in the 13th century. Translated literally it indicated the ‘standing still of the sun’ which was so perceived because at the solstices, the Sun’s declination appears to “stand still”; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) stops at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction
But centuries before the science was explained, cultures around the world lived and marked time by the movement of the sun and the moon. Time was governed by the patterns of light and darkness, warmth and cold. For the ancient people living in the northern part of the northern hemisphere, the period of the seeming death of light, and harsh conditions of the long winter months which made survival a challenge, the winter solstice was a significant event signalling the start of the change of seasons; and symbolising the transition from the cold and dark to the renewal of light. This regeneration of the source of light and life was marked by rites and celebrations to welcome back the light, and celebrate the rebirth of life.
“So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.” (Susan Cooper The Shortest Day)
Today this day is marked on calenders, largely without rituals and celebrations, as an astronomical event. But as we roll towards the end of yet another revolution of the earth around the sun, it may be a good time to use the longest night of the year to reflect on the year that was, and give thanks for the warmth and light that we have begun to take for granted. In the dark and chilling times that we live in (literally and metaphorically) it may be wise to remember the ancient reverence, and celebration, of the renewal of light, hope and faith.
“As never before, our world needs warmth in its cold, metallic heart, warmth to go on and face what has been made of human life, warmth to remain humane and kind.” Henry Beston