The winter solstice, which marks the beginning of winter and the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, comes tonight at 12:30 a.m. EST.
The Earth, turning on its axis as it circles the sun, is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees relative to its orbit.
Tonight is the night that the axis, as seen from the north, points as directly away from the sun as it will all year. So Chicago, for instance, will get just 9.1 hours of daylight tomorrow, Atlanta and Los Angeles will get 9.9 hours (closer to the equator) and everything north of the Arctic Circle will experience 24 hours of darkness.
As “armistice” is defined as a staying of the action of arms, “solstice” is a staying of the sun’s apparent motion over the latitudes of the Earth. At the summer solstice, the sun stops its northward motion and begins heading south. At the winter solstice, it turns north.
Ancient skywatchers had no understanding of this movement of the sun. They thought this celestial machinery might break down someday, and the sun would continue southward, never to return. As such, the lowering of the sun was cause for fear and wonder.
When the ancients saw the sun stop and slowly climb to a higher midday location, people rejoiced; here was a promise that spring would return. Most cultures had winter solstice celebrations and some “adapted” it to other events.
In Persia, the solstice marked the birthday of Mithra, the Sun King. In ancient times, Dec. 25 was the date of the lavish Roman festival of Saturnalia, a sort of bacchanalian thanksgiving. Saturnalia was celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. And in 275 A.D., the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, commemorated a feast day coinciding with the winter solstice: Die Natalis Invicti Solis (“The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”).
The Reason Of The Season is a new series that will take place from December 1 – December 25. I, like many non-theists and non-Christians, love the holiday season. I love taking the this chilly time of year to remind the people I love how much I love and adore them, to help and give to those less fortunate, and feel the innocent hope of when I was a child. This series is an effort to educate many on tradition and history as well as an opportunity to share why I love this time of year and the traditions we use and have created in our family.