THE winter solstice is the moment when the sun reaches its most southern point, after which days get longer again. It creates an alignment at Neolithic sites around the world, including Stonehenge, Newgrange in Ireland and Iwade henge in Kent. Neo-druids, neo-pagans and Wiccans — a variation on paganism — gather to chant spiritual mantras and bless the sun. Many of our traditional Christmas tokens, including the Yule log, mistletoe and decorating evergreen trees, started as winter solstice rituals. Many people – not least diary manufacturers — believe that the winter solstice always falls on December 21. But the celebration of the winter solstice is not fixed to a specific calendar date — this is because of a mismatch between the calendar year and solar year.
The solstice is traditionally celebrated at the sunrise closest to the time when the sun is stationary before beginning its transit to the north or south. This year this occurs at 23.03 GMT on Sunday December 21, hence the winter solstice celebrations take place at sunrise on December 22. The winter solstice was a time in prehistory when most cattle were slaughtered (so they would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented in readiness for drinking. For us in Kent in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year. Meanwhile, on the day of the December solstice, the Southern Hemisphere has its longest day and shortest night.
It takes six months for the point of sunrise (setting) to move from one extreme to the other or 12 months to complete the full cycle. Notice that the direction of Summer solstice sunrise is opposite to the winter solstice sunset and the winter solstice sunrise is opposite to the Summer solstice sunset. The same principle applies throughout the year Risings (settings) that occur either six months before or after a particular day, are opposite to the settings (risings). North of the Equator all heavenly bodies appear to move from left to right (clockwise). Given clear conditions, the apex of the rising sun suddenly appears on the horizon, almost like a car headlight coming into view over a hill-top. Slowly the full orb comes into view, which takes about four minutes. Meanwhile the sun will have moved nearly one degree to the right. When exact alignments are required, they are usually taken either on the point of first flash (or gleam) or at the point where the full orb appears tangent to the horizon. Setting phenomena of sun are in reverse order. The full orb first descends to the horizon and the point where it finally disappears is referred to as ‘last light’ (or gleam).
Day and night hours at the time of the equinoxes are equally divided. The further north of Faversham one goes between March and September, the longer the daylight hours become until daylight endures continuously for six months on reaching the Arctic Circle. Between September and March all is in reverse. The word solstice (Latin from sol, the sun and statum to stand still) denotes the time when the sunrise reaches its extreme positions, when it appears to remain static or stand still for several days. This made it difficult to know the exact day of the solstice, so prehistoric people marked the point of sunrise well before the solstice day and then counted the number of days before it returned to the marked position. Half this number would define the solstice day. The Heelstone at Stonehenge orpost 1431 at Iwade Henge could have been used for this purpose. For example if it took 20 days for the point of sunrise marked by both posts to return to the same position, so ten days after the first reaching of the posts alignment would be the actual solstice day.
No matter where you live on Earth’s globe, a solstice is your signal to celebrate. For us in Kent on the northern part of Earth, the shortest day comes at the solstice. After the winter solstice, the days get longer and the nights shorter. It’s a seasonal shift that nearly everyone notices. The universe holds its breath and when It breaths again we are in a new cycle of life.
Herne Bay Times, December 17th 2014