Dec. 21 will be the moment of this year’s winter solstice.
Most of us think of the solstice as an entire day, in this case the shortest entire day in terms of daylight, but it is technically just a moment in time. This year’s astronomical moment, when the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn, occurs at 5:02 in the morning.
Fitting that the moment should happen during the night since that part of the year, darkness takes up nearly 16 of that day’s 24 hours.
If you’re into things like solstice watching, I suppose the coolest part is how long a person’s shadow stretches at noon. It doesn’t happen very often, but a sunny day on the winter solstice is different in that it constantly looks like it’s later in the day than it actually is. The sun never gets very high into the sky which gives all day a “late in the day” appearance.
Once upon a time, people paid very close attention to this kind of thing. Most every ancient civilization built great structures to both honor and monitor the sun’s track across the sky. The Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and any number of other obelisks and towers remain as reminders of our ancestors’ interest and dedication to things happening in the sky. Today, this information is at our fingertips which leaves more room in my backyard for a sweet new shed rather than having to have a circle of perfectly placed squared boulders.
There is so much other information distracting those same fingertips but, unlike all that other stuff, solstice data is irrefutable, unarguable, time-tested and not at all vague.
In culling my sources for things to write about the solstice I came across an event called the Feast of Juul. Scandinavian in origin, the feast revolves around both the winter solstice, the Norse god Thor, and the burning of a large log. (When you read Juul, think Yule).
You light the log in honor of Thor and in anticipation that he would pay the honor back by returning sunlight and warmth to the world. Additionally, the log would not be allowed to burn completely. Remnants would be kept to ward off evil spirits as well as kindle next year’s fire. The Norse were among many civilizations that burnt things to encourage rebirth and use resources wisely.
As a bonfire aficionado I found that to be both symbolically interesting and practically useful.
Today being Sunday, Dec. 20 means that the winter solstice is tomorrow and Christmas Day is Friday. If the weather cooperates, I’ll build a nice backyard fire this week. Standing around the pit I’ll probably reminisce about the last year with members of my “pod.”
With every burning log the winter solstice will be augmented with light from a blaze.
It’s the holidays though, so don’t be surprised if Christmas and Thor get talked about just as much. It’s just sad that this annual astronomical event is just one brief moment in a year filled with way too many contentious ones.
As a contributing cog in the journalistic industrial complex my mission is to entertain, not to rile. The objective is to find things in the eight hours of light that can be massaged into a column worth competing with things often composed in the darkness of the other 16 hours of a given day. It’s a metaphor but it often makes this mission a challenge.
If ever there was a year that needed more light and more time for unarguable facts, 2020 was that year.