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Winter Solstice

December 21, 2010

Winter arrives in the northern hemisphere today. Unless it doesn't.

We're not being coy. The confusion comes from how you interpret a specific astronomical event: the December solstice. It marks the Sun's southernmost point in its year-long journey along the horizon. It's also the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

And in today's culture, it also marks the beginning of winter. But not every culture has seen it that way. Many considered it the middle of winter, not the beginning.

And that perspective certainly makes sense. The shortest days and longest nights of the year occur in the weeks just before and after the solstice, so there's ample reason to consider the solstice itself the middle of that dark time of year.

And in some cases, thinking of the solstice as the middle of the season made it easier to anticipate the arrival of the longer, warmer days of spring. Indeed, many cultures held festivals around the solstice to beckon the Sun to return, with big bonfires to ward off the darkness, or to celebrate the end of the harvest season.

One popular celebration was the Roman Saturnalia, a week-long party of feasting and gift-giving. Many of the customs of Saturnalia were later incorporated into the celebration of Christmas.

So whether you consider it the start of winter or the middle, enjoy the winter solstice -- which arrives at 5:38 p.m. Central Standard Time.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010


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