Thursday, December 21, 2006

Blessed Winter Solstice

In a land where the daily amount of sunlight varies wildly throughout the year, people are very attuned to its presence or absence. In southwest Alaska, somewhat below the Arctic Circle, we have nearly 22 hours of daylight in midsummer, and only about 5 hours in midwinter. Outdoor activities in the winter are either compressed into that short span, or done wearing a head lamp.

As the planet’s major source of heat and light, we have a strong connection to the sun; our survival depends on it. During the half of the year from June to December as the daily amount of light is waning, we often feel a cellular level of forlornness at its loss. People who are particularly sensitive to this loss of light may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that settles in during the darker months of the year. Fortunately, artificial full-spectrum lights are both helpful and affordable.

Even those who do not experience SAD are attuned to the gathering darkness of winter. Many embrace it as a time of rest and renewal, a time of self-assessment and internal nurturing and healing. There is something very focusing about the long, dark nights, especially when it is very cold out.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. The great blessing of the winter solstice is the return of the light and warmth of the sun, as the days will begin gradually to get longer. The winter solstice marks the first day of winter and portends the coming of the deepest cold of the year; but because it also marks the beginning of the return of sunlight, the day brings us great hope and joy.

The solstice occurs at a slightly different time each year, but always between December 20th and 23rd. This year it occurs on December 21st, at 3:20 pm Alaska time (UT-9). In the sub-Arctic where Bethel is located, we will gain back daylight at an average rate of 5 minutes per day. In a few weeks there will be a noticeable difference. With each passing month, we will gain over two hours of daylight each day.

Another interesting sun-related phenomenon that occurs here is that the sun's path across the sky varies widely between summer and winter. In the summer, the sun rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. Because of our very flat landscape, we have a crisp horizon, and the precise location of sunrise and sunset is easy to pinpoint. From our westward-facing deck, the sun sets far to the right at the summer solstice. In the winter, the sun rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. In our five hours of daylight it makes a flat arc low across the southern sky, giving us a very slanted angle of light and quite long noontime shadows. On the winter solstice, the sunset seen from our deck occurs far to the left.

Knowledge of the summer and winter solstices is very ancient to humankind. We have long known how to calculate their precise moments. The monument at Stonehenge in England served just this purpose. The ancient pagan spiritual traditions celebrated the solstices as the anchor poles of the cycle of seasons. The sun’s life-giving connection to the earth was recognized and honored at these celebrations, which were (and still are) usually marked by big bonfires, dancing and feasting.

Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, the winter solstice is a very real and tangible moment of hope, especially here in the far northern part of the earth. The sun is returning; we will soon see and feel the lengthening hours of daylight and their promise of warmth to come. It is an occasion to celebrate.

Photo of Stonehenge at the Winter Solstice (photographer unknown) found by Google Image search at this url:,GGLG:2006-06,GGLG:en%26sa%3DN


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

Before the warmth comes though can we have a little bit more snow in NW Ontario so that I can get some good dog sledding in?

Saturday, December 23, 2006 4:02:00 PM  
Blogger Shinga said...

As ever, thought-provoking photograph to accompany a thoughtful piece.

Regards - Shinga

Saturday, December 23, 2006 9:12:00 PM  
Blogger always learning said...

Nice post and gorgeous picture of Stonehenge! Here's wishing you and your loved ones a happy holiday season and all the best for the New Year! :)

Sunday, December 24, 2006 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 24, 2006 4:04:00 PM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

The best part about winter solstice here is that from here on in, the days start to get longer again.

Happy solstice!

Sunday, December 24, 2006 8:57:00 PM  

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