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Sunday, December 20, 2015

December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year

In the Northern Hemisphere the December solstice (wiki) marks the longest night and shortest day of the year with the latest dawn and the sun at its lowest point in the sky. I seem to remember that when I was a kid, the first day of each new season was always considered to be the 21st (of March for Spring, June for Summer, September for Autumn, and December for Winter). I guess it's more accurate now.

In seed-time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy. ~William Blake

Winter is the king of showmen,
Turning tree stumps into snowmen
And houses into birthday cakes
And spreading sugar over lakes.
Smooth and clean and frosty white,
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young,
Catching snowflakes on your tongue.
Snow is snowy when it’s snowing,
I’m sorry it’s slushy when it’s going.

~ Ogden Nash

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says "Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.


What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

~ John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

“Nothing burns like the cold.”
~ George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
~ William Shakespeare, Sonnets

“When the cold comes to New England it arrives in sheets of sleet and ice. In December, the wind wraps itself around bare trees and twists in between husbands and wives asleep in their beds. It shakes the shingles from the roofs and sifts through cracks in the plaster. The only green things left are the holly bushes and the old boxwood hedges in the village, and these are often painted white with snow. Chipmunks and weasels come to nest in basements and barns; owls find their way into attics. At night,the dark is blue and bluer still, as sapphire of night.” 
~ Alice Hoffman, Here on Earth

Winter then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run. And what it did to Northern forests can hardly be described, considering that it iced the branches of the sycamores on Chrystie Street and swept them back and forth until they rang like ranks of bells.

~  Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

So the shortest day of the year came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the
Snow-white world,
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees,
They hung their homes with evergreen.
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.

And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing, behind us -- listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight
This shortest day
As promise wakens in the sleeping land.
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year, and every year.
Welcome, Yule!

~  Susan Cooper ("The Shortest Day")

I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. 

~ Andrew Wyeth

Nature has many scenes to exhibit, and constantly draws a curtain over this part or that. She is constantly repainting the landscape and all surfaces, dressing up some scene for our entertainment. Lately we had a leafy wilderness; now bare twigs begin to prevail, and soon she will surprise us with a mantle of snow. Some green she thinks so good for our eyes that, like blue, she never banishes it entirely from our eyes, but has created evergreens.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This year's winter solstice (wiki) occurs at 11:49 PM Eastern Standard Time on the 21st of December, producing the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, when darkness descends over the land to its greatest extent. For centuries, humankind has greeted the solstice with mixed emotions - with fear that the darkness might not really recede; and with hope that the cycling of the seasons would again reassert itself. 

Of the winter season, American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) complained,

"Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamn,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamn."*

* N.B. This is actually a parody of an anonymous 13th-century English song:
"Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med,
And springeth the wude nu.
Sing cuccu."
Here's a brief explanation on the mechanics of solstices and equinoxes:


And a two minute NatGeo video:


The two revolutions, I mean the annual revolutions of the declination and of the centre of the Earth, are not completely equal; that is the return of the declination to its original value is slightly ahead of the period of the centre. Hence it necessarily follows that the equinoxes and solstices seem to anticipate their timing, not because the sphere of the fixed stars moves to the east, but rather the equatorial circle moves to the west, being at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic in proportion to the declination of the axis of the terrestrial globe.

~ Nicolaus Copernicus

Also at this time of year:

Saturnalia (wiki):

The winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days in In Ancient Rome. These Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE to honor Saturn, the father of the gods.

Saturnalia by Antoine-Francois Callet (1741-1823) Musée du Louvre
The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms.

The festival was characterised as a free-for-all when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored.

Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted, slaves were served by their masters and all grudges and quarrels were forgotten.

The Saturnalia would degenerate into a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the term 'saturnalia', meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry. A mock 'king' was even chosen from a group of slaves or convicts and was allowed to behave as he pleased for seven days (until his eventual ritual execution).

Halcyon Days (wiki):

The seven days preceding, and the seven days following the shortest day, or the winter-solstice, were called by the ancients the Halcyon Days. This phrase, so familiar as expressive of a period of tranquillity and happiness, is derived from a fable, that during the period just indicated, while the halcyon bird or king-fisher was breeding, the sea was always calm, and might be navigated in perfect security by the mariner. The name halcyon is derived from two Greek words: the sea & to conceive; and, according to the poetic fiction, the bird was represented as hatching her eggs on a floating nest, in the midst of the waters. Dryden thus alludes to the notion:

'Amidst our arms as quiet you shall be,
As halcyons brooding on a winter's sea.'

More on the Greek myth of Halcyon and Ceyx here.

Related post: 

Autumnal equinox science, videos, quotes, poems, Vivaldi and Copernicus.

Spring is here: science, myths, "spring spheres" and more.

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