Happy New Year and I hope everyone’s had a wonderful Festive Season. I know I’m a bit tardy with my greetings, but they are none-the-less sincerely meant. Having not posted for a while I was at a bit of a loss as to where to pick up from, but decided to go back a little way into 2017 to start from a significant date in both the natural world and culturally, the first day of Winter.
Most people think the coldest season begins around the winter solstice, but there are actually two definitions of winter.
The solstice marks the beginning of the astronomical winter and astronomical seasons are based on the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. We’ve recorded seasons this way for a very long time and ‘official’ astronomical seasons have been in place since the days of ancient Rome.
Meteorological seasons have been tracked since the late 1700s and are based on the annual temperature cycle. This enables meteorologists to compare climatological statistics for a particular season; important information for those involved in agriculture, commerce or any businesses that are dependent, or in any way affected by the weather. Accordingly they break the seasons down into groupings of three months. Winter includes December, January, and February.
Thursday, 21st December 2017
The official astronomical first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere was marked by the Winter Solstice, which occurred at 4.28pm this afternoon. It was the shortest day of the year, with daylight lasting just 7 hours, 49 minutes and 41 seconds – 8 hours and 49 minutes shorter than at the Summer Solstice of June 21st. This can be regarded as a turning point in the year, but true winter is likely yet to come: December is noted for being stormy rather than cold, although this year we experienced storms, cold weather and snow. The good news is that from this point on the days will get progressively longer and lighter as we approach the Summer Solstice on Thursday, 21 June 2018.
The event is called the “solstice” because the Sun literally “stands still” in the sky.The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still.”
The Solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice each year, once in summer on the 20th or 21st June and once in winter on 21st or 22nd December. The winter solstice occurs when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun and the day of the solstice is the shortest day of the year; i.e. the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. In fact, the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment in time, but the term sometimes refers to the day on which it occurs.
During the winter solstice, the sun is closer to the horizon than at any other time of the year.
Celebratory traditions of the winter solstice can be spanned back thousands of years, as far back as Neolithic times and may be the origin of rituals such as New Year’s, Christmas, and other “rebirth” celebrations held very shortly after its occurrence. Until the 16th century, the winter months were a time of famine in northern Europe. Most cattle were slaughtered so that they wouldn’t have to be fed during the winter, making the solstice a time when fresh meat was plentiful. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April that were also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Many of the traditions we now think of as being part of Christmas – including Yule logs, mistletoe and Christmas trees – have their roots in the pagan celebrations of winter solstice. In old farming communities, the Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on December 25th were believed to forecast the weather of the coming year.
Holly featured in the Roman feast of the Saturnalia. Although it became adopted by the church, in popular belief it kept its link with witches and wood spirits and it was thought unlucky to bring any into the house before Christmas Eve.
Solstice Celebrations at Stonehege
Famously in Britain, Stonehenge is the venue for huge numbers of Druids, pagans and other interested people that gather at this most iconic ancient monument in huge numbers to celebrate the winter solstice. Different ‘groves’ mark the occasion with different rituals that mark the beginning of the return of the sun, darkness turning into light, birth and rebirth.
Are we at the beginning or in the middle of winter?
The winter solstice, or hibernal solstice, may also be known as midwinter. Other names are the “extreme of winter” or simply the “shortest day”. In some cultures it is regarded as the middle of winter, while in others it is seen as the beginning of winter. It has been suggested that rather than the equinoxes and solstices marking the transition between seasons, recognising their dates as marking the middle of the season would be better.
Countries around the world have (and some still do) mark the seasons in this way. Midsummer’s Day and Midsummer’s Eve occur around the summer solstice, which seems to denote a celebration of the middle of the season, rather than its start. Seasons in Japan are traditionally based on their lunar calendar, which mark winter as starting around November 8 and ending around February 4.
This makes a certain amount of sense, just based on the astronomical calendar, since it would better reflect the number of hours of daylight as it changes throughout the year. Therefore, winter wouldn’t start on the shortest day of the year, but instead, that day would mark the exact middle – or deepest part – of the winter season. Similarly, the summer solstice – the longest day of the year – would be right in the middle of summer.
All I can say is that however we humans debate the dates of the first, middle or last day of winter, thankfully our wildlife remains attuned to the rythyms of nature, trusting their instincts and getting on with doing what they need to do when they need to do it!