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By Jim Rhodes
Today, December 21, is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day in which we experience the shortest periods of daylight and longest hours of darkness. To be precise, the Winter Solstice astronomically occurs at 5:23pm this afternoon.
If, like me, you studied Latin in your formative years, you will remember that the word solstice derives from sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stand still.
Today is also sometimes called Midwinter, although astronomically speaking, Midwinter occurs 45 days later, halfway between the Solstice and the Spring Equinox on March 31.
In the pre-Christian era, the Winter Solstice was observed in many pagan cultures. In ancient Rome, it was called Saturnalia. In Mithraism it was seen to be the birthday of the sun god Mithra. The Druids and ancient tribes of what became England apparently constructed the monuments of Stonehenge as a sort of primitive religious observatory for marking the Winter and Summer Solstices.
The selection of December 25 date for Christmas is believed by most historians to have originated in the early Christian era to coincide with these pre-existing pagan Winter Solstice festivals. The earliest historical reference to December 25 as the date for observing Christmas was in 336 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine (who was the first Roman emperor to be converted to Christianity). Pope Julius I, a few years later, declared December 25 to be the official date for Christmas.
This year the Winter Solstice occurs at a time of considerable interest to astronomers with a confluence of celestial events. For one thing, it coincides very closely with the last Full Moon of the calendar year. In the cold winter sky, the moon will appear to be larger and brighter than usual. An Ursid meteor shower is predicted to occur at about the same time. The meteors will burn up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, creating what appears to be “shooting stars” streaking across the heavens. They are called Ursids because they appear to be originating from the constellation Ursa Major (Latin for big bear, but better known to us as the Big Dipper). If that’s not enough, the comet 46P/Wirtanen made its closest approach to the Earth on December 12 and should be visible to the naked eye during the Winter Solstice. Look for it in the vicinity of the constellation Taurus.
Your best chance of seeing the meteor shower and comet will be before the moon rises or after it sets when the sky will be darker. Try – if you can – to find a dark spot away all those brightly lighted Christmas lawn decorations.
This will be my last communication until after New Year’s Day, another holiday often marked by celebrations not unlike the Saturnalian excesses of ancient Rome. I will probably forego the usual hilarities, and you will find me out in the park at midnight gazing skyward through my binoculars with a glass of cold bubbly liquid close at hand.