To us in the Southern Hemisphere, December 22 marks the longest day and shortest night of 2011. Since the Urban Astronomer has pretty much run out of ways to explain what a Solstice is, I thought I would try my hand at it:
The Solstice marks the days of the year when the Sun
is at its furthest point from the equator, and are the days with the longest and shortest nights in the year. This biannual phenomenon has been observed for millenia, because it very clearly marks the two main seasons: planting and harvesting. For many centuries, farmers, scholars and fisherman have planned their activities around these dates and as a result, the solstices go by many different names around the world. The most common names today are the Summer and Winter solstice, but to avoid the confusion caused by the North and South hemispheres having opposite seasons, we prefer to call them the June and December solstices.
There are many social behaviors and traditions linked to the Northern hemisphere celebration of this “Longest Night”. The December solstice always falls between the 20th and the 23rd of December, very close to the date of Christmas. The little things that we do at Christmas time as a matter of family or cultural traditions are often performed without the slightest notion that they are linked to the solstice celebrations of ancient pagans. People in the United Kingdom refer to the December Solstice as “Yule” time or “Yuletide”. This is an adaptation from the ancient Norse word for wheel (“Iul”) and stems from an old pagan festival. A Yule log would be burned all through the night, and a small portion kept to be burnt in the New Year. The ancient druids gave us the tradition of collecting mistletoe and it has been speculated that the positioning of druid ruins such as Stonehenge coincide with the rising of the “new sun” after “the longest night”.
When the Romans invaded the British isles, they brought with them the festival of “Saturnalia
”, also traditionally celebrated at the time of the Winter Solstice. It is thought that the invaders simply adapted their existing solstice celebrations to those already practiced in the area. There is no doubt however, that their greatest contribution was the Julian calendar, allowing early sky-watchers to document and establish the precise date of the solstice on any given year. As Christianity spread, and the tradition of celebrating the Messiah’s birth on 25 December became established, these already entangled traditions became attached to the Christmas tradition, and spread with it around the western world.
Down here in the Southern Hemisphere, our terms and observations of the events are notably less dramatic. Since most inhabited regions are fairly close to the equator, the differences between winter and summer are not so drastic for us. While the Northern hemisphere and Europe in particular carry a weight of history with their December solstice traditions, it is known in these parts merely as “The longest day”, marking the middle of summer. In Swaziland, the June solstice in winter is marked by the king, who sits in seclusion for days before the event and finally emerges, to “greet the sun.”
The Christmas tree, caroling, wood burning, the tradition of Santa Claus and gift-giving and so many other Christmas conventions seem to have evolved mostly from a time when mankind operated his daily activities according to the direction of the sun and the movement of the seasons. The globalizing effects of international broadcasting (and more recently, the Internet) continue to spread these “Northern-Hemisphere” practices to every corner of planet earth. As a result, it seems that, for the foreseeable future, those in the Southern Hemisphere are likely to celebrate their Christmas and summer solstice in a distinctly “Wintery” fashion.