The tilt of the Earth causes the seasons
“Winter is Coming” are the words of House Stark and it is only fitting that we say them today. However, do we really know what that means? The solstice is a word created from Latin. Sol, meaning sun and stitium meaning to stand still. The sun reaches its lowest point in the sky at noon on the winter solstice and its highest point in the sky at noon on the summer solstice. The change in the height of the sun is because the Earth is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees, so is either that much closer to the sun for summer or further away on the winter. Whatever we are experiencing in the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere is experiencing the opposite. The ancients were well aware of this and they used the sun's path across the sky as a calendar that told them when to plant and when to harvest.
The solstice was important to the ancients
Our ancestors were expert astronomers. They were able to calculate the solstices and equinoxes and accurately plan for them. Their calculations were so accurate that testaments to their knowledge still stand today. The sun still rises between the sarsen stones at Stonehenge on the solstice mornings even today and the stones in this monument are believed to be between four and five thousand years old, with evidence pointing to wooden markers going back even further. This is also true of the passage grave in Newgrange, Ireland. The sunrise floods the ancient chamber at sunrise on the solstice. We have the temples at Chichen Itza and Tulum, Mexico that also have special windows aligned with the rising of the sun on the solstice. The ancient peoples not only were able to predict the day, but they were also capable of constructing buildings and temples aligned to capture the moment as well. It proves to me that they weren't uneducated savages, even though they had no written language.
Celebrate the solstice
I have my own solstice ritual that I love to do each year. As the sun sets each evening further and further to the southwest, I watch its track along the horizon. I know that once it sets to the left of the big oak tree in my neighbor's field, that it will soon head back in the other direction. Like the ancients, this gets me excited for the coming spring and I'm sure it is no coincidence that the seed companies know this too. Catalogs start arriving in my mailbox about this time and I love to spend time drooling over the offerings and planning my gardens. It is also the time that I overspend and overplant in my fantasy garden mind, however I do tend to see reality when it actually comes time to place my order and pay for my seeds. There's just something about those glossy color images of new-to-me vegetables and flowers that makes me want to grow them all.
The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn happens on this winter solstice
The 2020 winter solstice is going to be extra special. That's right, with everything that has gone wrong in this crazy year, we're actually getting an end of the year treat. We definitely deserve it, don't we? We are getting a rare, celestial event that hasn't happened in nearly 800 years. It will be visible around the globe and you don't have to have any special knowledge of astronomy or equipment to view it. The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn happens on the evening of the 21st and is a special phenomenon. Some are even calling it a Christmas star, even though they are planets and not stars. A conjunction is when two or more of our planets or the moon come in close proximity to each other and this one is going to be very close. They will be so close that they will appear as one to the naked eye. We have five visible planets and the moon that grace our skies and we can usually see at least one or two every night. They travel through the sky, appearing in a different place each evening. This is not like the stars that stay stationary in relation to each other. The Big Dipper looks the same every night, however our planets will move against this background and be in a different place. The ancients knew this as well and they called the planets 'wanderers'.
View the conjunction with your family
It will be easy to view the conjunction and this will make a great science lesson for the kiddos and fun for the adults as well. I would advise finding the planets tonight or Sunday, so that you can see how they move. Look to the southwest just after sunset and to the right of the crescent moon. You will see a bright 'star' and one that is just a bit dimmer, very close together. The bright one is Jupiter and the dimmer one Saturn. They are actually very close in actual size, however Jupiter is much closer to the Sun than Saturn, so appears bigger and brighter. As the sky darkens and the planets start to set ahead of the moon, they will appear much brighter in the night sky, they will just be closer to the horizon then. On Monday evening, the planets will be almost on top of each other and so close, only people with telescopes will be able to tell them apart. On the 22nd, they will have moved apart again. If you are really interested, Mars is also visible right now. Look to the east and almost overhead. You'll see an orange tinted 'star'. The planets shine with a steady light and do not twinkle like stars to. That is because the planets shine with the reflected light of the sun just like our moon. I really hope that there's no clouds on Monday, since this is an event that won't happen again for many hundreds of years.
Honor your ancestors this solstice
Celebrate the solstice on Monday. This marks the beginning of longer daylight hours and each day is closer to spring. You'll be standing in the footprints of our ancestors and taking part in a tradition that goes back for thousands of years. While we do not depend on the solstice to mark time anymore, it is still an ancient connection to those who have come before. Celebrating the solstice anchors us to the earth and our spring gardens that will soon follow.