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Volume 14, Issue 51 ~ December 21 - December 28, 2006

Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

Celebrating the Return of Light

Winter’s just begun to clench its icy fist, but the sun is on the rise

Darkness reigns these last days of December, with the 21st marking the pinnacle, our shortest day of the year and the first of true winter. That day, solstice, the sun rises and sets at its southernmost point, 23°30' south of the equator, along the Tropic of Capricorn, where the sun shines directly overhead at noon.

But for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun rises far south of due east and sets far south of due west (although neither sunrise nor sunset is at its peak on solstice). As such, it takes the sun a mere 9 hours, 26 minutes and 22 seconds to cross from one horizon to the next.

Solstice in Latin means sun stands still. Since autumnal equinox, the sun has dipped southward day by day. But on solstice, the sun, like a pendulum pausing in place before reversing motion, halts its daily southern descent. For a day or two both before and after solstice, the sun appears to rise and set at 23°30'.

After only a few of these darkest of nights, however, our days begin to lengthen, ever so slightly but noticeably. Celebrating the rebirth of light transcends history, culture and even geography; those in the Southern Hemisphere experience the same celestial rhythms, only juxtaposed to our own.

The story of Christmas, too, and Christianity itself, dovetail with the much older pagan celebration of winter solstice. Religious scholars debate the actual birth date of Christ, even the year, and Orthodox Christians place Jesus’ birth well into January. But who can debate the symbolism? On these long, cold and dark nights, when winter has only begun to clench its icy fist, who wouldn’t celebrate the return of light, the rebirth of the sun and even the birth of God’s son?

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.