Features

Solstices Throughout History

By Alexandra Wenger ‘21, Features Editor

When does winter begin? Ask different people and they’ll give you different answers. I personally believe that winter begins when I have to stop wearing sweaters and need to haul my winter jacket out from the back of my closet. Others tell me that it’s when December begins, or when they first see snow. But officially, we’re all wrong.

For the Northern Hemisphere, winter begins every year on December 21st, the day of the winter solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, December 21st is the date of the summer solstice. There’s another solstice in June, which for the Northern Hemisphere is the summer solstice and for the Southern Hemisphere is the winter one.

Why do the astronomical seasons begin on those dates? Simply because those are the times when one of the earth’s poles is tilted at the maximum angle away from the sun. After the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun while the Southern Hemisphere is tilted towards it (hence our days are shortest and our weather coldest in the winter), and vice versa for the June Solstice. On the solstice itself, our day is shortest and our night longest in December, and our day is longest and our night shortest in June.

But the solstice holds significance throughout history beyond the official start dates of winter and summer. Neolithic humans might have begun observing the summer solstice to figure out the best time to plant and harvest crops. Newgrange, a Neolithic monument, is aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Some theorize that the structures served a religious purpose.

In Ancient Egypt, where the summer solstice corresponds with the rise of the Nile river, observance of the solstice may have helped predict flooding. According to some ancient Greek calendars, the summer solstice was the start of the new year and the marker of the one-month countdown until the Olympic games. In the days preceding the summer solstice, Romans celebrated Vestalia, which honored the goddess Vesta. Kronia was also held around this time. During the time of the winter solstice, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of the god of agriculture, and Juvenalia, a feast honoring children.

Ancient China associated the summer solstice with “yin,” or the feminine force. During this time, they celebrated Earth and femininity. Even before Christianity, ancient Northern and Central European pagans welcomed the summer solstice with bonfires to boost the sun’s energy for the incoming growing season. Dongzhi, the Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, welcomes the return of longer days.

The ancient Norsemen of Scandinavia celebrated Yule from the winter solstice through January. They brought home large logs, set one end on fire, and feasted until the log burned out. The Inca empire paid homage to the sun god Inti during the June solstice, fasting for three days prior and offering sacrifices on the day itself.

Suffice it to say, here in America we do not celebrate the solstice as other cultures, both ancient and modern, do. But we can enjoy the solstices all the same by reflecting on the earth and its seasonal changes.

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