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Weather Almanac for The Winter Solstice
A Long Mid-Winter Night
This day starts in the darkness of night, which is fitting, with me in the midst of a midwinter night's dream. This night, I can enjoy many hours of visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, for it is the 24-hour period north of the equatorial zone with the most hours of darkness. On this ultimate day of rest, even the mighty Sun stands momentarily still in the sky.
The word solstice literally means "sun standing still." At the moment of the winter solstice, the path of the sun in the sky over the past six months has reached its furthest southern position and now turns northward.
Today at noon, the sun will stand directly overhead at latitude 23.5o South, the Tropic of Capricorn. For residents of the Southern Hemisphere, it will be the longest day of the year, but for us in the Northern, the day will be the shortest. Indeed, for regions north of 66.5o latitude, the Arctic Circle, the sun will not rise on this day. At best on this date, those near the Circle will see a twilight glow in the noontime sky. And at the North Pole, the day will signify "Midnight."
Although for northern latitudes, the deepest cold is still a month or more away, the winter solstice has been used as the starting point for the winter season. This definition is based on the position of the sun in the sky between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The period has little to do with the weather, even though it does encompass some of the coldest months of the year in northern middle and high latitudes.
If we define winter solely by the coldest quarter of the year, the starting date would vary greatly with location in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, meteorologists and climatologists generally consider December-January-February as the winter months. However, if we define winter as the season with the fewest hours of potential sunlight (disregarding cloudiness) or the season with the lowest potential incoming solar radiation (again disregarding cloudiness), then the winter solstice marks the midpoint of that season.
Like its counterpart the summer solstice, the winter solstice is usually not a meteorologically memorable day, and if it is, it is the luck of the draw. Although the length of daylight and strength of potential incoming solar energy are minimal across the hemisphere on this day, the differences between the day of the solstice and those few surrounding days are not that great.
I find it unfortunate that media in both the United States and Canada continually call this day the "official" start of winter (they similarly define the other solstice and two equinoxes as "official" start days), and they often report wintry weather that occurs before this date as some type of affront to natural order. I, however, consider such statements an insult to all those in regions of the continent where wintry weather has been the norm for weeks if not months. As I said above, the date is an astronomical event and has nothing to do with weather and climate patterns. (When Jack Williams was the Weather page editor of USA TODAY, he had an offer of lunch for anyone who could produce a federal statute declaring an official start date to winter...or any other season.)
So why is this day so important to us, perhaps more so than the equinoxes or the summer solstice? I believe the reason is ingrained in the human body and mind. For years, people suspected that there was a psychological effect of this time of year on many. But now we know that it is not only psychological but is also physiological. We call the phenomenon Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) once called Seasonal Affect Depression is a real reaction of the body, and thus linked to the mind, of low light levels.
As the human species moved further away from its tropical birthplace, the impacts of the short winter days became important and the event woven into the social, cultural and religious fabric as well as the species' biology.
Festivals, rituals and celebrations appear throughout human cultures, beginning at least in the Neolithic Period of 10,000 years ago. We all have heard of Stonehenge and its function as a megalithic solar observatory. We now know that it has a contemporary counterpart in Ireland called Newgrange, which is estimated to be 5000 years old. Newgrange is also a solar observatory designed to funnel a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on the day of the Winter Solstice. Around the world, many such sites, including medieval churches, incorporate elements to determine and mark the important day of the Winter Solstice.
The best known celebration/festival during late December is Christmas, but it is a recent festival added to the list. Its date was set by the Roman Emperor during the Fourth Century to coincide with pagan rituals and celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice. There are great similarities to the "Birth of the Son" and the "Rebirth of the Sun" beyond the obvious similarity of words.
Festivals of the Winter Solstice have ancient origins. The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians had renewal festivals during this period, as did the Romans and other European cultures: the Roman Saturnalia, the Norse and Germanic Yule and the Celtic festivals. Winter Solstice festivals were not limited to Europe either. Among these are the Pakistani Chaomas, the Tibetan Dosmoche, the Chinese Dong Zhi and the Japanese Hari Kuyo. Native North Americans also held solstice rituals. These all predate the introduction of Christianity to their region and many of these rituals and festivals were later incorporated into Christmas observances such as mistletoe and holly. [For a good index of sites devoted to the December Festivities, visit Mything Links.]
At the root of all these celebrations and rituals is the battle between Light and Dark. The battle reaches a turning point on the Winter Solstice as the advances of Darkness are halted and the tide turns for the forces of Light. Light returns to drive the gloom away and to raise our spirits.
The day of the Winter Solstice marks the beginning of a new Solar Year. Let us rejoice and again turn our Weather Eyes upward to greet the new dawning.
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