'The Sun is Low': Aspects of the Winter Solstice
Stags and sea? In Denver? Not so much, but wind and cold are certainly ...usually ...typical of winter on the Front Range. And darkness? Oh yes. Daylight has been in steady decline since the autumnal equinox on September 22, and will not increase until after the winter solstice on December 21. Whether you are a modern commuter coping with seasonal affective disorder or a prehistoric farmer, wondering whether the light will, in fact, return, the winter solstice has been part of human consciousness from time immemorial.
The etymology of "solstice" gives us a clue to the importance it had to our ancestors. From the Latin sol sistere, solstice literally means "sun stands still." Will it arc again to provide summer's light and warmth, or ... not? We'll return to speculate on the importance of this question to cultures worldwide and across time but first, a few definitions. The Oxford Dictionaries Online states simply enough that the winter solstice is "the solstice that marks the onset of winter, at the time of the shortest day, about December 22 in the northern hemisphere and June 21 in the southern hemisphere." Here's more from The Gale Encyclopedia of Science:
Solstice, in astronomy, refers to the two points in the ecliptic... for which the sun is the farthest distance from the celestial equator. Thus, it also refers to the two dates of the year on which the sun reaches its northernmost (summer solstice) and southernmost (winter solstice) declination...
Try Wolfram Research for the full astronomical scoop. You'll also find a reliable table of starting dates and times for seasonal events, including solstices, on the US Naval Observatory's Astronomical Applications website.
Evidence abounds that the solstices were important, meaningful events to prehistoric people, though precisely why that is remains an open question. We see clues the story and song traditions of cultures worldwide. If you're interested in learning more, the Denver Public Library's collections include print, audio and online resources for all ages to ignite your search.
In addition to folklore, a number of significant archaeological sites have proven connections to celestial events like the winter solstice and archaeoastronomers have cataloged locations on every continent which, in some way, mark the winter solstice. Often this entails architectural and design features that track the movement of sunlight throughout the year. Among the many remarkable examples are Stonehenge in the UK, Egypt's Karnak, Machu Picchu in Peru, New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and, a personal favorite, Newgrange in Ireland's Boyne Valley. Waiting in its dark inner chamber, watching the rising sun flood inside, illuminating the space on winter solstice was ... amazing. And now, we've come full circle back to Ireland, and I can give you the rest of the poem...
Deep-red the bracken; its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
Cold has seized the birds' wings;
Season of ice, this is my news.
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