Winter will "officially" arrive on Saturday, December 21, at 11:11 a.m.Iowa time, but my body tells me that it has been here for more than a month. Modern day astronomers can tell exactly when the Winter Solstice will occur. This is the time when the angle of the Sun is at its lowest in the southern sky, giving the northern hemisphere the least amount of daylight and the longest period of darkness. This makes December 21 the "shortest day" of the year. After the solstice amount of daylight will become greater in the northern hemisphere, increasing about two to three minutes per day. Ancient people knew this was the time when they had to pay for the long hours of daylight they had in the warm summer months and be prepared for the coming winter. It was necessary for them to have enough food, firewood, and fodder stored for the coming months. Communities were not certain they could live through the winter; starvation was common from January through April- especially if a severe winter followed a poor harvest.
Some ancient civilizations built structures such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland to exactly determine the time when the solstice would occur. It was necessary for them to coordinate this event with their celebrations and prayers to the sun god. Last March I visited the Newgrange site in Ireland. It is a structure built by the Celts that is older than the Pyramids in Egypt. I had to walk stooped over down a narrow sixty foot long passageway that led to a round chamber. At the time of the solstice it was illuminated by a thin shaft of sunlight shinning though a narrow transom opening above the door. This dramatic event would only last for seventeen minutes at sunrise on the days around solstice. When the Celts saw that the Winter Solstice had occurred they would begin their elaborate rituals and prayers to the sun god for his return to bring back the longer and warmer days of summer. Interpretation and celebration of the Winter Solstice varied with different cultures. Native Americans recognized the solstice as a time for prayer and giving thanks. Some of the tribes used a ceremonial prayer wheel while others used a carved wooden prayer stick for their rituals.
Even today people are still fascinated by the Winter Solstice and the celestial phenomena that bring about the changing of the seasons. Every year thousands of people visit these historic sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange to observe the event. A former director of the Dallas County Conservation Department built a rock calendar at Hanging Rock Park in Redfield that marks the occurrence of the solstices and equinoxes.
We know that no ritual will alter the path of our planet in its journey around the Sun. The Winter Solstice is an immutable and predictable sequence of the rhythm of nature- just another beat in the pulse of time. However, today’s scientific knowledge does not lessen the basic wonder of this event. The Winter Solstice and the coming months of winter are annual changes within the cycle of life in the natural world.