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Winter solstice heralds new sun, old rituals

A solstice calendar of surprising accuracy, Stonehenge dates back almost 5,000 years.
A solstice calendar of surprising accuracy, Stonehenge dates back almost 5,000 years.  

By Richard Stenger
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere arrived Friday, an annual changing of the seasons that reveals the astronomical oddities of planet Earth and the behavioral quirks of human beings.

The December solstice marks the time when the sun reaches its greatest distance south of the equator. The occasion kicks off winter for those north of the global halfway line and summer for those south of it.

The seasonal shift change bathes the Antarctic in sunlight and plunges the Arctic in darkness for months. But Northern Hemisphere inhabitants take heart. After the winter solstice took place at 2:22 p.m. EST, the sun began a northward march, bringing longer and longer days.

The sun trek concludes six months later with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the north, and the seasons reverse themselves again.

The Earth, which travels in a slightly oval path around the sun, is actually 3 million miles closer to the sun on the December solstice than on the one in June.

The reason for the seasons is that the planet tilts about 23 degrees on its axis, like a gyroscope spinning a little off balance. This condition dictates the changing amount of sunlight in the two hemispheres, producing seasonal climate variations.

Monolith markers, burning logs

The December solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere leans furthest away from the sun, spawned numerous myths and traditions in the ancient world, some of which evolved into holiday celebrations in contemporary times.

In England, the druids held rituals at Stonehenge, a prehistoric collection of mysterious monolithic boulders that still works as an astronomical calendar, marking the dawn of both winter and summer.

And throughout Europe, those deprived of heat and natural light prepared for the solstice by burning Yule logs to ensure the return of the sun.

Similarly in Iran, to observe Yalda, on the longest nights of the year, people burned fires to help the sun fight against the darkness. In China, Ju Dong celebrants feasted on the day of the winter solstice.

The ancient Egyptians commemorated the passing of Osiris, the god of the dead, into the netherworld on December 21. The Greeks sacrificed a goat to the god Dionysus.

The Romans had celebrated the birth of numerous pagan gods during Saturnalia, a weeklong festival around the time of the winter solstice.

Early leaders of the Christian church in Western Europe, eager to establish a holiday marking the nativity of Jesus, selected December 25, in part because the residents of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating deity birthdays in late December.


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