You are here

Winter Solstice

December 21, 2015

Even in the modern era, we tend to fear the dark. We turn on extra lights to ward off the unknown — to isolate us from the possible dangers that lurk in the distance.

In ancient times, though, people feared that the dark wouldn’t end — that the long, cold nights of winter would go on and on. So they held special ceremonies at the winter solstice — the shortest day and longest night of the year. They lit bonfires, said prayers, and conducted other rituals to beseech the Sun to return, or to celebrate its upcoming rejuvenation.

In ancient Rome, for example, the solstice was celebrated with a festival called Saturnalia, which was dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture. People held banquets, exchanged small gifts, and lit candles, and masters waited on slaves.

Scandinavians held the Feast of Juul. They lit bonfires, and placed a massive “yule” log on the hearth to honor the god Thor.

Some of the trappings of both festivals were later incorporated into the celebration of Christmas — traditions that continue today.

And speaking of today, the solstice arrives at 10:48 p.m. Central Standard Time. The Sun stands farthest south for the entire year. It’ll appear to “stand still” for a few days more, rising and setting at almost exactly the same spots on the horizon. After that, though, it’ll begin its slow march northward — a march that will end on the summer solstice in June.

Tomorrow: a new perspective on Pluto.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.