Winter officially begins today with the solstice at 12:11 P.M. (EST). It may be hard for many people to accept that winter is just beginning when record cold temperatures hit the Deep South a month ago, and much of the nation is buried under at least a foot of snow.
The word solstice comes from the Latin words for "sun" and "to stand still.” In the Northern Hemisphere, as summer advances to winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets advance southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, which occurs at local noon, also moves southward each day. At the winter solstice, the Sun’s path has reached its southernmost position. The next day, the path will advance northward.
However, a few days before and after the winter solstice, the change is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still. The Sun is directly overhead at "high-noon" on Winter Solstice at the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice days are the days with the fewest hours of sunlight during the whole year.
There is usually a lag between the shortest day of the year and the lowest average daily temperature of the year. Although this part of Earth is cooling, its great thermal mass still retains some heat from the summer and fall. As the gradual cooling process continues over the next two months, temperatures will continue to fall, and the coldest temperatures will be recorded. The same pattern holds true for the summer solstice in June, as the year's highest temperatures are recorded later, in July and August.
Ancient people noted the winter solstice, and they left evidence that they held rituals or celebrations to mark the event. Prehistoric stone sites such as Stonehenge in Europe, an astronomically aligned stone altar in Guatemala and carefully placed windows on an ancient Native American stone house show that the ancients were demonstrated an amazing accuracy for astronomy. Since the daylight following the winter solstice grows longer, many legends and traditions across the world emphasize rebirth and new life with winter solstice celebrations.
Egyptians recalled the rebirth of the god-king Osiris upon the winter solstice and ancient Greeks celebrated a winter solstice celebration called Lenaea when a god was torn to pieces and then reborn. In Rome, Solis Invicti was a winter celebration where the sun deities were worshipped. Other cultures equated the winter solstice with renewal and rebirth. In Japan, the Amaterasu celebration honored the sun goddess and her emergence from a dark cave. In Pakistan during the winter solstice, a purification ritual is performed prior to feasting, singing and dancing. From Iceland and Russia to Vietnam and West Africa, winter solstice celebrations are among the first recorded winter holidays.
Perhaps the most widespread winter solstice tradition is the celebration of Christmas. The birth of Jesus Christ was celebrated on December 25, the day of the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. Since the fourth century A.D, Christians began blending pagan winter solstice traditions with Christian rituals, celebrating those modified rituals in place of the Roman festival of the sun god. Today, Christians connected this winter holiday with the birth of Christ and celebrate his nativity worldwide.
Whether you celebrate the solstice, enjoy the snow and cold, or just look forward to the warmer days slowly approaching, the winter solstice is a great time to snuggle up by a warm fire, drink a hot beverage, and relax.
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