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Winter Solstice 2009: Facts on Shortest Day of the Year

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Author Topic: Winter Solstice 2009: Facts on Shortest Day of the Year  (Read 278 times)
Kara Sundstrom
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« on: December 22, 2009, 04:34:42 am »

Because the oceans are slow to heat and cool, in December they still retain some warmth from summer, delaying the coldest of winter days for another month and a half. Similarly, summer doesn't hit its heat peak until August, a month or two after the summer solstice.

Winter Solstice Marked Since Ancient Times

Throughout history, humans have celebrated the winter solstice, often with an appreciative eye toward the return of summer sunlight.

Massive prehistoric monuments such as Ireland's mysterious Newgrange tomb (video) are aligned to capture the light at the moment of the winter solstice sunrise.

(Related: "Ancient Irish Tomb Big Draw at Winter Solstice.")

Germanic peoples of Northern Europe honored the winter solstice with Yule festivals—the origin of the still-standing tradition of the long-burning Yule log.

The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the God Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the winter solstice. Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithra—an ancient Persian god of light.

Many modern pagans attempt to observe the winter solstice in the traditional manner of the ancients.

"There is a resurgent interest in more traditional religious groups that is often driven by ecological motives," said Harry Yeide, a professor of religion at George Washington University. "These people do celebrate the solstice itself."

Pagans aren't alone in commemorating the winter solstice in modern times.

In a number of U.S. cities a Watertown, Massachusetts-based production called The Christmas Revels honors the winter solstice with an annually changing menu of traditional music and dance from around the world.

"Nearly every northern culture has some sort of individual way of celebrating that shortest day," said Revels artistic director Patrick Swanson. "It's a lot of fun for us to dig up the traditional dance and music and even the plays [honoring] that time of the year."

Of course, as the name suggests, The Christmas Revels mix ancient winter solstice traditions with customs of the holiday that largely replaced winter solstice celebrations across much of the Northern Hemisphere—Christmas.
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