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Winter Solstice: Thursday, 21 December, 2017, 8:28 AM, PST

December 20, 2017

This year we report on that other large object in the sky, known as the sun.

Our Sun (Alan Friedman ~ 4/22/14, on NASA site)

Not a rotting peach, but our Sun – 860,000 miles in diameter, 8 light-minutes away (Alan Friedman ~ 4/22/14, on NASA site)

The final solar event of this calendar year is the Winter Solstice, scheduled in Los Angeles for December 21, 2017 at 8:28 AM PDT (or 1628 UTC – Universal Time Coordinated, if you prefer; also known as Greenwich Meridian Time in Ye Merry Olde Angleland).  The sun rises at 6:54 AM at 28° south of due east, daylight will last 9 hours, 53 minutes, 05 seconds (9:53:05); the sun sets is at 4:47 PM at 28° south of due west, and nighttime is 14 hours, 7 minutes (rounded). Daylight on Dec. 21 is one second shorter than on Dec. 20, and two seconds shorter than on Dec. 22. This is the shortest day of the year and the first day of Winter in the northern hemisphere; conversely in the southern hemisphere it is the longest day of the year and the first day of Summer. That’s not an accident. Our seasons are due entirely to the tilt of the earth’s axis.

Why does the Earth Tilt? Conjectures vary, no one knows for sure. Take your own best guess. Here are some conjectures. When the solar system condensed out of a gaseous nebula, condensation occurred unevenly. During the early phase, solid bodies were both growing in size and moving less orderly than today; collisions resulted. The tilt may have resulted from a large collision, an event which may have simultaneously created our moon an event for which the no-longer-existing planet Thea has been blamed. Less likely conjectures: Unbalanced gnawing on the earth’s core by large blind mice caused it to wobble. The earth doesn’t tilt – the rest of the universe is off-kilter.

Imagine if the earth didn’t tilt and our planetary axis was perpendicular to our orbital plane. We would have no seasonal changes anywhere on earth. At any given point, the temperature would be the same year-round. Trees wouldn’t need to shed their leaves. Animals needn’t migrate. The extreme latitudes might be covered with snow all year. Rainfall patterns might fluctuate, causing wet and dry “seasons” but seasonal changes in temperature and day length would not occur. Forms of animal and plant would evolve in quite different directions than they did.

Tilt of earth at northern winter solstice (

Tilt of earth at northern winter solstice (

Definition of the term (from and Online Etymology
Winter: [Old English winter, plural wintru] When it’s cold. From Proto-Germanic wintruze, it meant “time of water” in reference to the rain and snow occurring at the higher latitudes of central and Northern Europe. Cognates: Dutch winter, Old High German wintar, German winter, Danish and Swedish vinter, Gothic wintrus, Old Norse vetr. In even earlier Proto-Into-European (PIE), it likely literally meant “the wet season,” from PIE *wend-, from root *wed- for “water, wet.”  Perhaps also cognate with Gaulish vindo-, and Old Irish find “white.”
Solstice: [Latin solstitium] from sol ‘sun’ and sistere ‘to stand still,’ as it is regarded as a point at which the Sun seems to stand still. First used in English around 1250.

Seasonal Fluctuation
The atmosphere, land and oceans all buffer the earth’s temperature, thus the coldest and warmest times follow the winter and summer solstices, respectively, rather than falling on those days. Just as with people coming from a freezing lake or hot bath, it takes time for solid bodies to warm up or cool down.

Eastern Sunrise, Western Sunset
Throughout the northern winter and spring, the points of sunrise and sunset move farther and farther north.  The extremes are the Winter Solstice (around December 21), when the sun rises and sets farthest to the south, and the Summer Solstice (around June 21) when they are farthest to the north.  The equinoxes mark the halfway point, when sunrise and sunset are exactly east and west.

Winter Festivals
The farther one lives from the equator, the more noticeable are seasonal variations in daylight and warmth, and the more important seasonal events such as winter festivals become. Most winter festivals are linked to recognition of the growing length of day.

Mesopotamia and Babylonian area (arhat

Mesopotamia and Babylonian area (arhat

Setting aside China, India and the Americas for this discussion, it was in the Middle East, in what is now Syria, Iraq and Persia, that humans began to systematically study movements of stars, planets and seasonal changes. Not only for curiosity’s sake, but to determine times of rainfall, planting, harvesting, cold, they began gathering real data: where the sun rose and set, that sunrise and sunset points move, that such points periodically slow in their movement and reverse course. The easiest way to do this was to create a large circle, mark regular divisions on the circle, as closely spaced as possible, and lay it down where you can see the entire horizon.  The Sumerians (or later, the Babylonians) came up with a circle of 360 degrees. Stand in the circle’s center and mark along the rim where the sun (or moon or stars) rise and set. Record your data, and in a couple of  years, you’ve got it pretty well figured out: length of year, solstices, equinoxes, months. Add some star groups as signposts through which move the sun and planets (Greek planasthai for “to wander”), and you have the zodiacal constellations (Aries, Taurus, etc.) Bingo! Next stop, the moon!

An astrolabe. Enlarge it, lay it down, and you get an idea of how to locate sunrises. (

An astrolabe. Enlarge it, lay it down flat, and you get an idea of how to locate sunrises. (

It takes a few days to confirm that the solstice has indeed occurred. According to this chart, by four days after the solstice the daylight period has grown by only 15 seconds. This is about the minimum difference one could detect with primitive instruments. So the early Mesopotamian scientists (astronomers, or at that time, astrologers) would notify their people that the solstice had occurred, the day had indeed begun to lengthen, eternal night was warded off for one more year, winter would not last forever and springtime would surely come. This was a Very Good Thing to Know, and a cause for celebration. Thus, solstice festivals didn’t necessarily fall on the solstice itself, but often on the day one could surely detect that the solstice had successfully re-occurred.

Roman Saturnalia
Saturnalia was a seven-day festival, beginning as early as December 17 and as late as the 23rd, originating as far back as 217 BCE. The Feast of Saturn –  father of the primary gods like Jupiter, King of the Gods – was a great time of feasting, drinking and general revelry. Discipline was suspended, businesses and schools were closed, grudges forgotten, wars postponed, slaves served by their masters. Gifts were given: imitation fruit, candles and dolls, as symbols of fertility, bonfire and human sacrifice. A mock king was selected from among the criminals; he had seven days of fun before his execution. In later years Saturnalia became a disreputable time of debauchery and crime.

Scandinavian Juul
Juul was a pre-Christian winter solstice festival, celebrated primarily with hearth fires inside and bonfires out.  The Juul (later Yule) log was burned on an indoor hearth to honor Thor, God of thunder. Juul log fragments became good luck tokens and kindling for the next year’s Juul log. In some countries, England and Germany for example, ash from the log was strewn as fertilizer in the fields until Twelfth Night, or kept as a charm or medicine.

It is generally held that early Christians selected the feast of Saturnalia as cover to celebrate their Christmas (the Christ-Mass) because no one would notice them celebrating something different during the general revelry, and the meaning of the solstice celebration dovetailed nicely with the Christian stories of rebirth, resurrection, or return of the light of God to a cold and sinful earth. Some Biblical scholars point out that Middle Eastern shepherds did not “watch their flocks by night” during winter, rather they penned up the sheep and fed them; therefore Jesus could not have been born in December. Early Christians had no idea when Jesus was born, so utilized the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia.

In many Christian Orthodox countries, Christmas is celebrated on January 7, because these churches haven’t corrected for the accumulated errors of the old Julian Calendar, named for Julius Caesar, who introduced it in 46 BCE. In February 1582, Western Europe began to adopt the Gregorian Calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII, by moving the date forward 10 days. The last country to make this change was Turkey, in 1927, adding 13 days.

Most people believe that the word “X-mas” was recently invented by advertising copywriters trying to fit more words into limited space or, more sinisterly*, by evil secularists seeking to murder Christmas. Neither are true. Parade Magazine 12/20/15, Marilyn Vos Savant’s column “Ask Marilyn,” has the following:

Q: How did our flippant habit of referring to Christmas as Xmas ever get started? — J.C., Ocala, Fla.
   Many people are offended by the abbreviation and assume it’s a modern abomination. But, in fact, it’s at least 1,000 years old and was not meant to be disrespectful or used that way. What appears to be an X in our modern Roman alphabet is actually the Greek letter chi, the first letter of the word Christos, meaning Christ. Two possibilities for the shortening: Use of the name of Christ in another word may have looked unseemly, or it may have been done for a religious reason. Either would mean that we now see the abbreviation as the opposite of what was intended.

The Greek χ, often written  as “chi,” is pronounced “kai” with a hard C. High school math teaches us about the “chi-square.” Some earlier users of Xmas (or χ-mas) were: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr: letter dated 1923; Lewis Carroll – 1864; Lord Byron – 1811; Samuel Coleridge – 1801;  Royal Standard English Dictionary – 1800, Boston, MA; Bernard Ward’s History of St. Edmund’s college, Old Hall – 1755;  George Woodward – letter dated 1753. Even farther back we find: X’temmas – 1551, cited in Oxford English Dictionary (OED); Xp̄es mæsse – circa 1100 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The OED and OED Supplement cite usage of χ for “Christ” as early as 1485. Also cited are “Xtianity” for “Christianity” from 1634, and “Xtian” and less commonly “Xpian” for “Christian.”. In manuscripts of the New Testament and in icons, χ is an abbreviation for Χριστος as is XC (the first and last letters in Greek, using the lunate sigma; compare IC for Jesus in Greek).

So if you want to use “Xmas” in a letter to your χtian fundamentalist mom, you’re in very good company.   [Chuck “Lefty*” Almdale]

*Note: “Sinister” (Latin sinistra) originally meant left-handed. “Dexterous” (Latin dexter) ” meant right-handed, and by extension right, correct, skillful, good. The left hand was the wrong, clumsy, unable hand, later becoming “evil” in contrast to the right hand’s “goodness.” Those who are ambidextrous – able to use either hand with equal skill – were considered to have two right hands. Most people who claim to be ambidexterous are actually bidexterous, using different hands for different tasks.

Interesting Links – December Solstice – Los Angeles sunrise, sunset & day length for Dec. 2017 – Perihelion, Aphelion and the Solstices
Heliophysics – A Universal Science
Los Angeles Equinoxes and solstices from 2010–2020

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