By GRANT MAYNARD
FOR those interested in such things, the winter solstice is fast approaching. It is noteworthy because the day is generally held to have the least daylight hours of any in the year.
Not necessarily true, as I found out, but more on that later.
The word ‘solstice’ is derived from ‘sol’, the Latin word for Sun, and ‘sistere’, which means ‘to come to a stop or make a stand’.
According to our Federal Government’s Geoscience Australia website, the winter solstice usually occurs on June 22, but can occur on any day from the 21st to the 23rd.
The ‘cold solstice’ has a much warmer equivalent, known as the ‘summer solstice’.
That also occurs once a year, but this time in December when the Sun’s track across the Australian sky reaches its highest point.
The summer solstice usually occurs on December 22, but can occur on the 21st to the 23rd.
So, knowing that it might naturally lead you to believe that they are, respectively, the shortest and longest days of the year.
Not so fast. An interesting idiosyncrasy relating to the winter solstice, the geoscience website informs, is that the sunrise is not the latest and the sunset is not the earliest as might be expected.
Similarly, for the summer solstice. It does not feature the day with the earliest sunrise and latest sunset.
However, the winter solstice does have the least amount of daylight hours, and the summer solstice the most daylight hours.
How is that I hear you ask?
Well, according to scientists it is because the path of the Earth around the Sun is an ellipse, not a circle, and because the Earth is off-centre on its axis, these combined phenomena can create up to several minutes difference between solar and mean time.
Around the date of summer solstice, for example, these effects make the Sun appear to move slightly slower than expected when measured by a watch or clock. As a result, the earliest sunrise occurs before the date of the summer solstice, and the latest sunset happens after the summer solstice.
For the same reasons, around the winter solstice, the time of sunrise continues to get later in the days after the solstice.
That is the science of the solstices, but they are also considered spiritually significant.
The dates have been marked for thousands of years as humans have been awed by the great power of the Sun.
For instance, a Pagan believes the summer solstice, or Litha, means a stopping or standing still of the Sun – the longest day of the year and the time when the Sun is at its maximum elevation.
The Celts celebrated with bonfires that would add to the Sun’s energy,
Christians in the Northern Hemisphere placed the feast of St John the Baptist towards the end of June, and it is also the time of the festival of Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light.
Like other religious groups, Pagans were, and remain, in awe of the incredible strength of the Sun and the divine powers that create life.
For Pagans this spoke in the Wheel of the Year is a significant point. They believe the Goddess took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of spring and she is now at the height of her power and fertility.
For some Pagans the Summer Solstice marks the marriage of the God and Goddess and see their union as the force that creates the harvest’s fruits.
This is a time to celebrate growth and life but for Pagans, who see balance in the world and are deeply aware of the ongoing shifting of the seasons it is also time to acknowledge that the Sun will now begin to decline once more towards winter.
Winter Solstice has also been celebrated in cultures the world over for thousands of years.
In days gone by it was known as Yule, and was a celebration of light and the rebirth of the Sun.
‘Yule’ is still celebrated in Germany and Scandinavia, and this is where we get many of our Christmas customs, including Christmas trees and putting decorative wreaths on the front door.
According to Pliny the Elder, in Britain druid priests would mark the important date by gathering mistletoe and sacrificing bulls – which was also likely a practical measure to limit the number of mouths to feed during the potential months of food shortage and even famine.
In addition to mistletoe and 12 days of festivities, several Christmas traditions, such as Yule logs and decorating trees, date back to the Yule celebrations, which were later adopted and adapted by Christians.
The Winter Solstice was also marked in ancient Egypt and Rome, often as a marker for the passing seasons, and a possible time of rebirth.
It is a little confusing because many of these Northern Hemisphere traditions our out of step with the way we do things Down Under.
Or, more accurately, we are out of step with them!
While they’re celebrating the winter solstice, it is high summer here and vice versa.
But each to their own.
All that aside, the winter solstice is upon us in the Southern Hemisphere and after it has passed we can look forward to the days getting longer…and warmer.