Astronomer Ken Tapping looks over some of the electronics at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. Western News file photo

Star gazing: History of the Winter Solstice

At 8:28 a.m. (PST) on Thursday, Dec. 21, the sun will rise and set at the southernmost extreme

At 8:28 a.m. (PST) on Thursday, Dec. 21, the sun will rise and set at the southernmost extreme of its yearly travels.

Its height above the horizon at noon will be its lowest and we will have the smallest number of hours of daylight. This is the Winter Solstice, which comes from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), because that is the point where the sun pauses before reversing its apparent motion, like a swing pausing momentarily before heading back.

For those of us with a view of the eastern or western horizon this annual motion is very obvious. After the winter solstice we see the sunrise and sunset points on the horizon moving northwards each day, imperceptibly at first and then faster and faster, and then slowing until around June 21 we reach the northernmost points of sunrise and sunset — the Summer Solstice — after which the sunrise and sunset points start moving southward again. These days, with heated homes, light available at the operation of a switch and stores full of food from all over the world, we are not as much affected by the annual motions of the sun; also, we know what is going on.

The Earth orbits the sun once a year, spinning on its axis once a day. That axis is tilted by 23 degrees, so that it is always pointing at the pole or North Star. This means there is a point in the Earth’s orbit where the northern end of that axis is leaning towards the sun, so the Northern Hemisphere gets the maximum amount of sunlight — the Summer Solstice, and on the opposite side of the orbit, six months later, a point where the northern end of the axis is leaning away from the sun. Then the Northern Hemisphere gets the minimum amount of sunlight — the Winter Solstice.

This annual rhythm of the sun meant more to our remote ancestors. The death of the old year and welcoming the return of the sun and the birth of a new year was acknowledged in ceremonies. One of these was attaching fruit and other offerings to a tree to encourage the return of the time where fruit and other things would grow once again. In an age when there was little long distance transport of produce, life depended on what could be hunted or grown locally. Ancient monuments like Stonehenge were sites of huge celebrations of death and new life, coinciding with the death of the old year and birth of a new one. Horus, one of the Egyptian gods was born on the Solstice. So was Mithras, worshipped by the Roman Legions. He was born in a cave, attended by shepherds.

As the sun approaches the solstice, the sunrise and sunset points move along the horizon more and more slowly. Without clocks or calendars, our ancestors found it hard to know exactly when the solstice happened, until it was past. To cover this they allocated a period of 12 days around the solstice for celebrations such as Saturnalia, a riotous party dedicated to the Roman god, Saturn.

When Christian priests moved into the cold, dismal winters of Northern Europe, they saw the pagan celebrations and rededicated them to celebrations of events in the Christian calendar. The solsticial celebrations became Christmas. Over the following 2,000 years the calendar became partially detached from astronomical events and went through various adjustments, moving the Christmas celebration to where it is in the calendar today, and that 12-day period became the “12 Days of Christmas.” So today, our celebration of Christmas combines our religious beliefs, our culture and traditions dating back at least 5,000 years, and astronomy. I wish you all a Wonderful Christmas. The Mars Saga continues next week.

Jupiter shines brightly in the southwest before dawn. Mars, much fainter, lies to its right and Mercury shines low in the dawn glow. The Moon will reach First Quarter on Dec. 26.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the NRC’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.

Just Posted

Spallumcheen adventure park concerns

Neighbour to proposed adventure park in Spallumcheen offers up his concerns on project

Entrepreneur gives Vernon’s homeless women a boost

The woman says she’ll continue to package and send out bags of products from her self-run business

Vernon mom rescues sleeping baby from burning home

UPDATE: Investigation still underway into cause of blaze

Access to Okanagan Rail Trail to be limited by erosion work

The work will be done throughout September but won’t begin before the Labour Day weekend

Rain in the forecast for much of the Southern Interior

Rain for much of the day in most areas clearing in the evening

Madchild brings demons of drug abuse to Vernon

Swollen Members rapper takes Status stage

Civil claim filed over motocross track west of Summerland

Track was constructed on agricultural land around 2016

BC SPCA overwhelmed with cats, kittens needing homes

Large number of cruelty investigations, plus normal ‘kitten season’ to blame

Car catches fire while being towed by motor home on Hwy. 97

The incident occured just north of Sage Mesa Rd., no injuries have been reported

On-foot brewery tours in Okanagan give ‘beer runs’ a new dimension

Brew Crew Kelowna celebrated its kick-off year in this summer

B.C. Hydro applies for rare cut in electricity rates next year

Province wrote off $1.1 billion debt to help reverse rate increase

Repair work to begin on lakeshore paths in Summerland

Paths were damaged during spring flooding in 2017 and 2018

Smash and grab at Okanagan pot shop

Cash register and products stolen from Starbuds store in Lake Country

Most Read