By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — With all the hoopla of Christmas, it’s easy to forget that the winter solstice was marked by deeply spiritual ceremonies long before the emergence of Christian traditions. But if you take a moment today to contemplate the sun hanging at it’s lowest and most southerly point in the sky, it’s a little easier to understand why ancient people took the trouble to erect massive stone monuments to observe the day.
Try and see the world from the perspective of a Stone Age hunter in a time when the universe was infinitesimally more mysterious than it is today. Now, we understand orbital cycles. Notwithstanding the end-of-the-world hype, we can be fairly certain that the days will soon start getting longer again. We can keep warm in our homes, and fend off the dark with electric lights.
But there must have been a time when the long, dark nights at the start of winter were frightening, with no real assurance that spring would arrive once more. Gradually, through observation, even the ancient ones figured it out, and the fact that the cycle of shortening days was at an end became reason for celebration.
Today we understand that it’s the day the northern hemisphere is at it’s maximum tilt away from the sun: the shortest day and the longest night of the year, and the first day of winter.
And just a reminder: The solstice isn’t actually a whole day, it’s just one particular moment in time when the northern hemisphere is at its maximum tilt away from the sun. The Earth doesn’t ever stop spinning or revolving in its orbit, so once that moment has passed, the sun imperceptibly begins its northward journey.
We may not have a Stonehenge, but we do have the Rocky Mountains, which can help you mark the passage of the seasons. Take a minute this evening to observe the spot along the horizon where the sun sets, then watch over the next few weeks as it slowly starts to creep back to the north. Look up into the sky around mid-day to see how low the sun is, then watch it climb back up, until, six months from, it will reach its zenith on the summer solstice.
Of course, this year’s solstice has been the subject of wild rumors that the Earth will end, based on widespread misinterpretations of ancient Maya calendars. Those rumors apparently have been a boon for tourism in Central America, but they are completely unfounded in fact. But in the age of the internet, the myth has persisted, to the point that NASA a while back established a website dedicated to debunking the myth.