Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Longest Night of the Year

Today is the shortest day of the year, followed by the shortest night, also called 'winter solstice'. The sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, and its noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the solstice. The word is derived from the Latin word solstitium, which combines sol for 'sun' and -stitium, for 'a stoppage' or 'stand still'. Thus, solstice means sun-stand-still.



The exact date of this years winter solstice is Dec 22nd 00:22, Greenwich Mean Time.

Folks, this means that from tomorrow on, days will get longer again!

It will be a very short night for me though, since I'm flying eastwards and loose a couple of hours.

It is generally believed that our date for the Christmas celebration, as well as many traditions are linked to ancient celebrations around the date of winter solstice. At least I can't recall the bible says something about hanging shiny stuff on evergreen trees, or kissing the poor guy who didn't notice the mistletoe. And for me, the days getting longer is a good reason to celebrate!

"In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for Aboriginal people in the northern latitudes. The growing season had ended and the tribe had to live off of stored food and whatever animals they could catch. The people would be troubled as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon. They feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they took heart that the return of the warm season was inevitable. The concept of birth and or death/rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. The Aboriginal people had no elaborate instruments to detect the solstice. But they were able to notice a slight elevation of the sun's path within a few days after the solstice -- perhaps by DEC-25. Celebrations were often timed for about the 25th. [...]

CHRISTIANITY: Any record of the date of birth of Yeshua of Nazareth (later known as Jesus Christ) has been lost. There is sufficient evidence in the Gospels to indicate that Yeshua was born in the fall, but this seems to have been unknown to early Christians. By the beginning of the 4th century CE, there was intense interest in choosing a day to celebrate Yeshua's birthday. The western church leaders selected DEC-25 because this was already the date recognized throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various Pagan gods.[...]

Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of Pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, etc." (source)

One tradition though remained a mystery for me for a long time. Why do people put an angel on top of their trees? Well, here's why (from PlanetMike.com):

Xmas -- The tree angel tradition

Santa was very cross. It was Christmas Eve and NOTHING was going right. Mrs Claus had burned all the cookies. The elves were complaining about not getting paid for the overtime they had while making the toys. The reindeer had been drinking all afternoon and were dead drunk. To make matters worse, they had taken the sleigh out for a spin earlier in the day and had crashed it into a tree.
Santa was furious. "I can't believe it! I've got to deliver millions of presents all over the world in just a few hours - all of my reindeer are drunk, the elves are on strike and I don't even have a Christmas tree!


I sent that stupid Little Angel out HOURS ago to find a tree and he isn't even back yet! What am I going to do?"

Just then, the Little Angel opened the front door and stepped in from the snowy night, dragging a Christmas tree. He says "Yo, fat man! Where do you want me to stick the tree this year?"
And thus the tradition of angels atop the Christmas trees came to pass........

See also this interesting article about The Ancient Origins of the Winter Solstice, and the Wikipedia Entry on Solstice.

6 comments:

Rhea said...

Have a peaceful Winter Solstice!

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

heave a good, short flight through the longest night!

I remember, last year, when I took the flight to California from Frankfurt on Christmas, four days after solstice, something strange happened: Instead of the "eternal afternoon" of those flights, when one leaves Frankfurt at noon and arrives in the late local afternoon, it really got dark under way! That was, I realized then, because the northern route brought us into the polar night...

Best, stefan

Uncle Al said...

Whenever you successfully drive through a yellow traffic light an angel's wings burst into flame and it plunges into Hell for 24 hours. This keeps them on their toes.

Entry into heaven is a simple count of yellows passed. If you don't drive you become an angel-catcher. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Effective, economic, rational, and fast to execute on large scales during geonocides, wars, famines plagues, and illegal immigrant spinach harvests.

Michael Clark said...

I'm glad that joke was useful to you. :) Merry Almost Christmas!

Carl Brannen said...

"They feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more."

Of course I've seen this sort of thing before, but I doubt it's true. The ancients were not stupid. One big difference between us and them is that they were very closely connected to the outdoors, the weather, and the things that happen in the skies.

The next time someone tells you what sign they were born under, try finding out if they can recognize that constellation, or if they can define what "under" means.

Our ancestors saw skies with the Milky Way visible down to the horizon. They knew what it meant to say that "Mars is in Ares", and they could see the constellation that the sun was in.

To suppose that they didn't know that the sun would come back is ridiculous. I suppose they had a summer solstice festival because they were afraid the sun would keep growing and bake them to death. No! The reason they had a winter solstice festival is because there is a natural human inclination to partay.

Bee said...

Hi Carl,

The ancients were not stupid.

Yeah, I didn't take the text too literally. I also don't think they were seriously afraid the winter would last forever, but I can imagine that every year they might have been afraid the winter would get really serious and many of them would die. The winter solstice must roughly have marked the day when they knew they'd make it through. Also, I know it's silly but each year in spring time I am amazed by the green coming back. Even though I *know* it will. At least on the level how Garrett put it 'I'd gladly bet my life in exchange for a burrito' that we'll have spring next year. And now, what would be the ancient analogue for a burrito I wonder?

The only sign I was born under was probably a tag on a neon light saying 220V/50Hz.

All the best,

B.