Forces of nature
December's often-overlooked event
December 18, 2008
The first visitors inspect the reconstructed sun observatory in Goseck, eastern Germany, with a giant spotlight simulating the sunset during the site's inauguration on Dec. 21, 2005. The prehistoric circular observatory, discovered in 1991 during a reconnaissance mission of archeologists, was dated 4800 BC and rebuilt after excavations. (Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images)
During this season of holidays, when debate erupts over the most non-exclusionary way to offer season's greetings, there comes one event that many people don't even notice. It comes every year and it affects everyone, whether they celebrate it or not.
At 7:04 a.m. ET (or 12:04 p.m. GMT) on Sunday Dec. 21, 2008, the northern hemisphere begins its tilt back toward the sun, marking the winter solstice in this part of the world and slowly leading to longer days.
Because the earth tilts as it orbits around the sun, the northern hemisphere leans farthest away from the sun, making the solstice - derived from the Latin, sol (sun) and sistere (stand still) - the shortest day of the year and the first official day of winter. While some may not think it cause for celebration, the solstice is a day of deep historical and cultural importance.
Solstice celebration in history
In earlier civilizations, the winter solstice was among the biggest festive events of the year.
Scandinavia's Norsemen celebrated Yule to mark the day. The old Norse traditions are now mostly lost to history, but some of the Norse Yule customs — such as Yule logs, mistletoe, ham for dinner and even the term Yule — are now hallmarks of contemporary Christmas.
The Roman solstice festival of Saturnalia was one of the most significant events in the calendar. Over time, it grew from a one-day feast to a full week of merrymaking.
There were public holidays, with sacrifices (non-human) and feasts. It was the only time of the year in which gambling was officially allowed, even for slaves. Slaves also enjoyed a temporary upending of social roles — they were exempt from punishment and celebrated banquets that were often served by their masters. It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry.
But other festivities would eventually eclipse Saturnalia. Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire and Christmas became a more prominent event. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa, the Greek festival of Kronos and other ethnic celebrations also occur at this time of year. Now, the solstice passes mostly uncelebrated.
Shedding some light on the subject
"I like these cold, grey winter days. Days like these let you savour a bad mood." —Calvin and Hobbes
The solstice comes at a time of dark days and sometimes darker moods. After the solstice, each day gets progressively longer but the lack of light at this time of year is known to cause SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a mood disorder affecting some half a million people worldwide every year. Although it's only called SAD, it's not just a simple case of wintertime blues. Symptoms include overeating, anxiety, lethargy, depression and loss of libido.
It's easy to fix, though: In 85 per cent of cases, exposure to an extra 1-2 hours of bright light a day causes notable improvement.
Other reasons to celebrate
The prospect of shortened days, less sunlight and the cold, grey months aren't something to look forward to.
So perhaps people need to put a different spin on the day. How about, "Happy Samuel L. Jackson's birthday!" or, "Happy Crossword Puzzle Day!" It may be the shortest day of the year but over the ages solstice day has seen plenty of interesting events.
On Dec. 21, 1913, the New York World published Arthur Wynne's "word-cross," the first crossword puzzle. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first hit the silver screen on solstice day in 1937; and 1,937 solstice days ago, in 69 AD, Vespasian became the fourth Roman Emperor in a year, during the chaotic and not-so-creatively named Year of the Four Emperors.
Maybe none of these events makes anyone want to throw on a toga and have some Saturnalian fun or dress up Norse-style and celebrate Yule. Many people can't stand winter, and they're already counting the days until the temperature jumps and the days are long and sunny. But keep this in mind: If it's the first day of winter here, it's the first day of summer in New Zealand — and you have some vacation time coming up.
- Natural Disasters
- Autumn: Why leaves go red
- Extreme heat
- Forest fires: Urban areas
- Snow: Reader's stories
- Little-known facts about snow
- Summer solstice
- Summer weather
- Wind chill
- Wintry blasts of the past