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December 21, 2018, marks the winter solstice and the official “shortest day of the year” here in North America. According to the National Weather Service, people in the Northern hemisphere experienced just 9 hours and 53 minutes of daylight today as compared to our typical 12. While we might celebrate the changing of the seasons from Autumn to Winter by donning warm sweaters and downing hot drinks, the sky is marking the change with an astronomical show that includes both a meteor shower and a full moon!

What is the Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice occurs the moment when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, or 23.5° south latitude and the North pole is tilted farthest away from the sun. In other words, the solstice marks the onset of Winter and the shortest daylight of the calendar year in North America! As the solstice approaches, daylight hours in the North grow shorter and shorter and as soon as it has passed, the days begin to slowly lengthen. The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, falling anywhere between December 20 and December 23. Most usually, this change takes place on the 21st or 22nd of December.  During our Winter solstice, areas in the very high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere will experience a more pronounced winter solstice and see little to no sunlight at all. While those of us in the North are in darkness, our friends in the Southern Hemisphere experience the longest day of their year (known as the Summer Solstice) and reach peak sunlight.

A photo of a half-lit Earth from the moon. NASA/Bill Anders – http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/alsj/a410/AS8-14-2383HR.jpg

Winter Solstice in Ancient Times

The term ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin word ‘solstitium,’ meaning ‘Sun standing still. Many ancient cultures viewed the solstice as a time of death and rebirth, which makes sense when one considers the dormancy of trees and hibernation of bears and other animals that takes place during winter time.  Scandinavian and Germanic pagans used to light fires burn Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light on the darkest night. Long before calendars and analog clocks, Early man kept track of passing time by observing the Sun as it “moved” across the sky, casting shadows during the day and at different times of the year.  In fact, historians believe that England’s Stonehenge was built to keep track of track of the Sun’s yearly progress. The stones of Stonehenge have silently marked the winter solstice for thousands of years. Those who built the impressive structure made sure that its shape would frame the sun during both the summer and winter solstices.

Peter Trimming / Magical Stonehenge / CC BY-SA 2.0

Look to the skies tonight!

Tonight, a Cold Moon, or full moon that coincides with the solstice, will rise for the first time in eight years. Though the full moon officially arrives Dec. 22nd, the moon will look full to anyone who sees it tonight. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the next occurrence of a full moon rising on exactly on the calendar day of the winter solstice won’t happen again until 2094! So, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, grab a blanket and head outside after dark to catch the last full moon of 2018.

The annual Ursid meteor shower is making its way across our night skies and is expected to peak on Friday and Saturday nights— with about five to ten visible meteors per hour.  Though the full moon may make it difficult to see, space.com reports that the best time to see the shower is  Sometime between midnight Friday and sunrise on Saturday. Get the hot beverages, coats, and blankets ready, because tonight the sky is putting on a spectacular show.

Here at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, we believe that the best way for you to get to know your world is to explore it! What better way to explore the wonders of the night sky than to sit beneath the moon and stars and watch the magic happen? Here’s hoping that your winter solstice is cozy and filled with the astrological wonder!

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