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I am not a pagan, a wiccan or even a Unitarian, but I’ve always been curious - in summer and winter – about the solstice. Each season has their own personal solstice.
We’re told that the earliest people, who had little to do at night after sundown, so they would leave their dreary caves, go outside and stare at the sky a lot. After doing this for a very long time, someone in the group noticed that the sun’s path across the sky was somehow connected to the length of daylight, and where the sun came up and went down, shifted in a regular way throughout the year. Except the “year” hadn’t been invented yet. That would come later.
We’re told that monuments like Stonehenge in England had something to do with early attempts to track the sun’s annual progress, all of which lead to the invention of the “year” and other useful inventions - like calendars.
A relative of my father’s from Halifax, N.S. spent many years at sea and knew all about the annual paths of planets and stars. I can’t remember how old I was when Uncle Earl told me about how here in the Northern Hemisphere our days start getting longer around the 20th of December. The bad news is that our days start getting shorter in late June before we’ve even begun to enjoy summer.
I’ve learned that solstice – summer and winter - is an astronomical event, caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis, and by its rocking motion, as it orbits around the sun. If you ever wondered why everything around you looked like it was half a bubble off plumb you weren’t going crazy. Well, maybe you were going crazy but it had nothing to do with the earth being tilted. Somewhere, I learned that the Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is instead tilted on its axis by 23-and-a-half degrees. So, it’s not half-a-bubble, but more like a quarter-of- a bubble off plumb. Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. People who know such things say the tilt of the Earth – not our distance from the sun – is what causes winter and summer. At the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning most away from the sun.
At the December solstice, Earth is positioned in its orbit so that the sun stays below the north pole horizon. As seen from 23-and-a-half degrees south of the equator, at the imaginary line encircling the globe known as the Tropic of Capricorn, the sun shines directly overhead at noon. This is as far south as the sun ever gets, so don’t expect it to go any further. All locations south of the equator have day lengths greater than 12 hours at the December solstice. Meanwhile, all locations north of the equator have day lengths less than 12 hours.
For us, in the northern part of Earth, the shortest day comes at the winter solstice. So, now that the winter solstice is over and done with, our days will start getting longer, and the nights, of course will get shorter shorter. And that’s all I wanted to say – winter solstice means longer days, shorter nights.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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