Corvallis Science and Nature: Happy Solstice Essay, Nature’s New Year 

The holiday season is upon us. Hanukkah started this past Sunday night, Christmas is four days away, and Kwanzaa begins the day after. The second half of December also features the Hindu holiday Dhanu Sankranti and holy days for Zoroastrians and other faiths. There’s even the Seinfeld-inspired Festivus, celebrated December 23rd. We’re also ten days away from the solar New Year that turns over the calendar for much of the world, with Lunar New Year following three weeks later.   

But older than any of these winter holidays and remembrances is the celebration of the winter solstice, the official start of winter and the shortest, darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Conversely, it’s the longest day of the year south of the equator. Before there were calendars as we understand them, solstice was the first New Year’s Day.  

Here in Corvallis, we bottom out at 8 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds of sunlight today. Tomorrow will be just 2 seconds longer, but by March, we’ll be gaining over 3 minutes of sunlight every day, until summer solstice, a day that’s over 15 hours, 33 minutes long. 

Archaeological records suggest that humans have recognized and celebrated the winter solstice for at least 10,000 years. Stonehenge in England is constructed to point directly at the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on winter solstice. Newgrange in Ireland is similarly arranged so that on the solstice morning, the rising sun beams into an underground chamber. In the Americas, Mayan, Zuni and other indigenous cultures built their own monuments to the day of the lowest sun.

For most of human history, all over the world, there were practical reasons to mark the turn of the season. Solstice would often be the day when excess food animals were slaughtered, so they didn’t have to be fed with limited grain supplies through the long winter. This sudden glut of food, which usually could not all be stored for later, was as good an excuse as any for a party, the source of many of our winter festivals. It was also a day for prayer, as people thousands of miles apart all asked their gods, and often the sun itself, to bring back the light and let life begin again in the spring.  

Today, those of us lucky enough to be housed can turn on lights at night. Technology heats our homes and refrigerates our food, so marking the solstice and its associated holidays is more of a choice than a necessity. But however much we may try to separate ourselves from the natural world, the cycles of nature still affect us. From sleep to diet to mood and mental health conditions like seasonal affective disorder, we are still connected to the seasons. Today is a good day to reconsider that connection, and celebrate not only the shortest day of the year, but the fact that from here on out, it’s a little brighter each day.   

Happy solstice, and happy holidays. 

By Ian Rose 

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