Winter Solstice: Facts on First Day of Winter
Monday is the winter solstice and the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. It's all due to Earth's tilt, which ensures that the shortest day of every year falls around December 21.
But it's not all about astronomy. Since ancient times people have marked the winter solstice with countless cultural and religious traditions—it's no coincidence the modern holiday season surrounds the first day of winter.
Solstice in Space: Astronomy of the First Day of Winter
During the winter solstice the sun hugs closer to the horizon than at any other time during the year, yielding the least amount of daylight annually. On the bright side, the day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days leading up to the summer solstice.
"Solstice" is derived from the Latin phrase for "sun stands still."
That's because—after months of growing shorter and lower since the summer solstice—the sun's arc through the sky appears to stabilize, with the sun seeming to rise and set in the same two places for several days. Then the arc begins growing longer and higher in the sky, reaching its peak at the summer solstice.
The solstices occur twice a year (around December 21 and June 21), because Earth is tilted by an average of 23.5 degrees as it orbits the sun—the same phenomenon that drives the seasons.
Winter Solstice's Christmas Connection
Scholars aren't exactly sure of the date of Jesus Christ's birthday, the first Christmas.
"In the early years of the Christian church, the calendar was centered around Easter," George Washington University's Yeide said. "Nobody knows exactly where and when they began to think it suitable to celebrate Christ's birth as well as the Passion cycle"—the Crucifixion and resurrection depicted in the Bible.
Eastern churches traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 6, a date known as Epiphany in the West. The winter date may have originally been chosen on the basis that Christ's conception and Crucifixion would have fallen during the same season—and a spring conception would have resulted in a winter birth.
But Christmas soon became co-mingled with traditional observances of the winter solstice.
"As the Christmas celebration moved west," Yeide said "the date that had traditionally been used to celebrate the winter solstice became sort of available for conversion to the observance of Christmas. In the Western church the December date became the date for Christmas."
Early church leaders endeavored to attract pagans to Christianity by adding Christian meaning to existing winter solstice festivals.
"This gave rise to an interesting play on words," Yeide said. "In several languages, not just in English, people have traditionally compared the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the son of God."
-- Exceprts from the article "Winter Solstice Monday: Facts on First Day of Winter" by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News (updated December 18, 2009)
Posted décembre 21st, 2009 by Oneness Blogger