On Sunday December 21st the northern hemisphere will experience solstice. Solstice is the moment in time when our sun’s daily elevation in the sky is the lowest due to a 23.45° tilt of the earth axis. The day surrounding this brief event is frequently called midwinter and it marks the 24 hours in which we experience the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. For many cultures this day is cause for celebration. It is an astronomical phenomenon that has sparked worldwide superstitious rituals for centuries.
Our ancestors lived with much less comfort than we do and any sign of more sunlight plus the warmth and regrowth that would follow was reason to celebrate. Stonehenge was built as a line of sight to mark the solstice sunset. Crop allocations would be scheduled based upon this moment in time to assure that the bounty of the harvest would last until they could be replenished.
Ancient man feared the shortening of daylight and the ritual of banging drums and pans and anything they could beat upon to frighten away the winter was common. The people would become troubled as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon. They feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. After the passage of the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate and regain hope in the future as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they took heart that the return of the warm season was inevitable.
It is speculated that many celebrations of birth and rebirth were scheduled around this time of year to give our ancestors hope and pull them through the long, dark and cold months of winter. As a Christian I’m not supposed to celebrate anything except the birth of Jesus this time of year. However, the agnostic Pagan in me finds novelty in the rituals of our lesser informed forefathers.
A group of my theater friends meet every solstice for a party and at the moment of the 23.45° tilt of the earth axis they bang their drums and pots and pans and whatever else they can get their hands on to scare away winter. Perhaps it does not work, the earth’s axis will tilt back toward spring and summer on its own, but the ritual does no harm either. Except of course for disturbing the peace or noise ordinances, which they found out the hard way one year when a neighbor reported them to the police. Oops!
I’ve never been invited to the celebration, but through the magic of social media I can live vicariously through my friend’s party each Solstice. It looks like fun, but sometimes the reality of a situation is not as fun as the image.
Either way, on Sunday we can look forward to the beginning of a minute or 2 of more day and less night every day until late June when we tilt back the other direction.
I am a man of simple pleasures who loves variety. For my money Winter Solstice, Summer Solstice, the vernal equinox and autumnal equinox provide the anticipation of simple variety and the pleasures that come with the change of seasons. It is one of the things we love about living in Wisconsin. Seasonal variety and these days mark those seasonal changes.
So bring on winter and let’s bang the drums this Sunday!