When Night Becomes Day

by Jim McGinity

Darkness is upon us early these days. By the time the average worker returns home, the sky is pitch black, street lamps are on, and billboards and signs are the brightest beacons in the city. Falling temperatures and brisk winds add an extra chill, all of which makes this time of year especially bleak for some. Although there are still several months of winter ahead, the winter solstice is the time when days begin getting longer and the night starts to become day. Over the centuries, this time of year has been marked by celebration. As the days shortened, ancient cultures feared that the sun would no longer return. They performed rituals celebrating the light and encouraging it to return. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is when the sun is at the lowest arc in the sky. It is heralded as a turning point — the day that marks the return of the sun. Ancient cultures built great architecture aligned to observe and mark solstices and equinoxes. Examples include Stonehenge in England, a perfect marker for the solstices. A lesser-known site is Newgrange in Ireland. This circular stone structure is estimated to be centuries older than Stonehenge. It receives a beam of light deep into its central chambers at dawn on Winter Solstice which reveals a series of carvings on a stone basin. A third example is Maeshowe on the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, which admits a shaft of light at the Winter Solstice setting sun. Scientifically speaking, the winter solstice (December 21 on our western calendar) occurs when the northern hemisphere is leaning farthest away from the sun. The tilt in the Earth’s rotational axis, combined with the position of the earth in relation to the sun, results in a position of maximum tilt, creating the summer and winter solstices. As the earth travels around the sun in its orbit, the north-south position of the sun changes over the course of the year due to the changing orientation of the earth’s axis angles with respect to the sun. This tilt of the earth’s equatorial plane relative to the sun is responsible for the seasons. The dates of maximum tilt of the earth’s equator correspond to the summer solstice and winter solstice, and the dates of zero tilt correspond to the vernal equinox and autumnal equinox. At the Urban Ecology Center, we invite you to celebrate the Winter Solstice with a Candlelight Walk in Riverside Park. On Saturday, December 20, the evening before the solstice, center staff will lead visitors on a luminary walk through the park, with poetry and inspirational readings celebrating the season. Afterwards, participants can stay for hot cider, music, and fellowship in the Center. It is a unique opportunity to explore the outdoors in the city at night, and discover nature in its dimly lit quiet. Contact the Center for more information at 964-8505.