Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Real Reason for the Season

With all the last minute running around buying gifts and worrying about whether the sales associate says Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, perhaps we might want to slow down and reflect for a minute on the real Real Reason for the Season. The Season is Winter. Today, December 21, is the Winter Solstice, the day the Sun is reborn. The days start getting longer again after today.

Winter Solstice: The True Story of the Shortest Day

By Sarah Ives
National Geographic News
December 18, 2003

Are you afraid of the dark? If so, then December 21, 2003, is not the day for you.

This year December 21 is the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice, the shortest day — and longest night — of the year.

The length of days changes throughout the year. In the summer, the sun often sets after 9 p.m. In the winter, it may already be dark as you head home from school.

Day length varies because of the Earth's tilt.

The Earth travels around the sun. But the Earth does not orbit with the North Pole at the top and the South Pole at the bottom. Instead, the Earth is tilted slightly. Because the Earth is tilted, different parts of the Earth face the sun at different times of year.

"Half the [year] the sun is hitting the Northern Hemisphere and half the [year] it's hitting the Southern Hemisphere," explains Bill Murtagh, a solar forecaster with the U.S. Space Environment Center in Colorado.

The Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice occurs when that hemisphere is tilted the farthest away from the sun. This happens every year between December 21 and 23.

But what about the Southern Hemisphere? Here's where the winter solstice gets complicated.

The Southern Hemisphere has its summer solstice when the Northern Hemisphere has its winter solstice. That's because in December, the Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. When it's winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it's summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The winter solstice marks the official first day of winter. People have celebrated the day around the world and throughout history.

Ancient Egyptians held ceremonies during the solstice. And more than 4,000 years ago in Ireland, people built a tomb designed to let in light only during the solstice.

Native Americans, such as the Hopi and Zuni Indians, celebrate the day. And people have honored the solstice in China, Japan, and Taiwan too.

Even Hanukkah and Christmas are related to the winter solstice.

Hanukkah always begins three days before the new moon that is closest to the winter solstice. The new moon is when the dark side of the moon is facing Earth.

Ancient Rome had a major festival in honor of Saturn, their god of farming, on the winter solstice. The solstice occurred around December 25 on the Roman calendar.

About 1,600 years ago, Pope Julius I of the Catholic Church decided that Christmas should be celebrated on December 25, so that a Christian holiday would replace the ancient Roman one.

If short days and long nights give you the blues, don't worry. After the winter solstice, each day gets a little longer.