The Winter Solstice

by Richard Hall

The Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. How often have you heard this?  Well actually, it is correct for only two days in the year.  For thousands of years our ancestors have been aware that the rise and set positions of the Sun are continually moving back and forth along the horizon. Further, they realised that the climate was directly related to the rise and set positions of the Sun.  This provided them with vital information – when to plant, when to harvest, when to sail.

Our ancestors identified and observed four special days in this cycle that marked a significant change in the climate and therefore a change in the tasks of the people. 

These days most people do the same job throughout the year.  Not so in the past. The four special days divided the year into four seasons and, each season had different tasks.  These four days were the two solstices which identified summer and winter; and the two equinoxes which marked spring and autumn. 

Equinox means equal day and equal night.  It is when the Sun is above the horizon for exactly 12 hours.  And, these are the only days of the year when the Sun rises due east and sets due west.

The Sun setting at the Equinox

Solstice means the Sun standing still.  It is the day upon which the Sun rises and sets at its most distant point on the horizon north or south of due east or due west.  The two solstices are also the days with the longest and shortest hours of daylight.

In the ancient world the solstices and equinoxes became great festivals that were celebrated by people around the world.  Every major religious festival from culture to culture is identified with either a solstice or equinox. For example, in the northern hemisphere the festival of the Spring Equinox was known as Easter.  December 25th, Christmas Day, was in the days of the Roman Empire the date and festival of the Winter Solstice.

Snowhenge.

The Winter Solstice in the southern hemisphere (summer in the north) occurs on Sunday June 21st.  In the ancient world the day began at sundown.  Consequently, using ancient traditions, the day of the solstice starts at sundown on our Saturday June 20th.  

Happy Winter Solstice!