Sunday, December 30, 2012

Winter Solstice

Note: This program first aired on December 22, 2012.

6:12  am, Friday December 21, 2012. That’s the local time of the occurrence of the winter solstice. Yes, we tend to think of the solstice as a day, but astronomically, it is a moment in time. At that moment, the planes of the earth’s orbit and axis are perpendicular to one another, with one pole pointed towards the sun and one pointed away from the sun as much as possible. On the winter solstice, here in the northern hemisphere, this day will have the longest night of darkness and the shortest day of light of any in our 365 day trip around the sun, simply due to the angle of the axis of earth’s rotation. The sun’s arc in the sky will be at its lowest, and the location of its rise and set will be the furthest south along the horizon. Once we have passed this point in our orbit, the days gradually begin to lengthen (you and the plants won’t notice until at least February), the sun’s rise and set will edge further north along the horizon, and the sun will creep higher in the sky each day, all as we move along the ellipsis and the axis of earth’s rotation slowly moves parallel with the plane of the orbit (this occurs at the equinoxes).

We call the winter solstice the start of the winter season, but plants and animals (and us) have been responding to the drop in temperatures and the decreasing amounts of sunlight for some time now. Starting with the shortening days of late summer and fall, plants begin their period of outward dormancy. Leaves senesce (or die back or fall off) and the living tissue of the plant becomes limited to the roots and perhaps the above ground stalk. This limits the damage the cold and lack of water can do to the plant. Most seeds are fully developed by this time and should be being dispersed throughout the environment. Animals have three ways to deal with the rigors of winter; they can leave or migrate, hibernate or “tough it out”. Again, as early as late August, observant bird watchers can see birds flocking and preparing to leave our area for warmer, lower latitude environments.   When it gets truly cold as winter really begins, many animals enter a state of torpor, with marked drops in metabolic activity. This decreases their physiologic needs, allowing them to wait out the challenging conditions of winter. Hibernation is the most commonly used term for this, but the phenomenon actually encompasses a spectrum of dormant like behaviors. Of course many animals just tough it out, relying on their stores of body fat and whatever food they can find in the winter, to remain fully active..

Humans have been observing the cycles of the natural world for as long as we have been on this planet. And as the natural order draws in and appears to pause at the cold and dark time of the year, humans have created rituals of observance that inscribe these natural patterns on human culture as well. Black Friday not withstanding, many of our holiday traditions throughout the year are based on early pagan celebrations tied directly to the solar cycles of solstice and equinox. Traditions include contemplative rituals that reflect the quiet and dark of the year, and rituals that celebrate the return of the light. So as we enter these last few days of the frantic modern holiday season, take a moment to reflect on where this frenzy of visiting and parties, family time and gift giving came from—our ancestors, who had all the time in the world to watch the path of the sun and the arc of the moon, and who knew this earth with an intimacy we can’t even fathom today. It is my belief that this level of deep deep knowledge is healing, restorative, and as the events of the last week have shown us, we are deeply in need of this. This holiday and solstice season, honor those that have come before us and pause and pay attention, noticing where the sun comes up and where it drops below the horizon. Do this every day and by February, you will be ready as that extra light creeps into your life. Happy Solstice everyone.


Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Ask an Astronomer--

Cute teacher website from the state of Michigan:

There is so much great new age info out there on the pagan rituals as they relate to modern holidays and solar cycles. Google it and you’ll find lots of wild and wacky and very interesting reading.

This is the best show I’ve ever heard on the symbolism of solstice and our winter holidays: (spoiler alert: Santa is a Shaman…)