To many cultures, the winter solstice was a day when the life-giving Sun seemed to have deserted the world. These cultures held ceremonies to seek the Sun’s return. But they had to know just the right day for those ceremonies. So they appointed priests or chiefs to watch the Sun from special locations. In some cases, those spots were crafted so the Sun would cast light or shadows on representations of the Sun at sunrise or at noon.
One of the most famous examples was at Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico. At noon on the winter solstice, two slashes of sunlight flanked a spiral that represented the Sun. Sunlight penetrated the center of the spiral on the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — but left it in shadow on the winter solstice.
Another example is near Paint Rock, Texas. As the Sun stands highest in the sky, a dagger of sunlight stabs through the heart of a red painting that depicts a shield — a possible symbol for the Sun.
The dagger crosses the shield only around the winter solstice. A University of Texas astronomer confirmed that the shield-and-dagger probably was an intentional alignment — part of an annual ritual designed to bring warmth back to the Texas hills.
And that alignment takes place today. The winter solstice occurs at 11:11 a.m. Central Time, when the Sun stands farthest south for the year. It will soon begin to move northward — slowly restoring its life-giving rays to northern climes.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.