Celebrating the solstice

I have a solstice ritual that I love to do each December. If the sky is clear or almost clear, I'll stand outside as the sun sets at its furthest point south from my yard. There's a large oak tree that the sun sets to the left of and I know that once the sun appears on the left side of that tree, it is only a few days before I see it appearing on the right side. The southernmost sunset is what I love to wait for. That means that even though winter has barely begun, longer days and spring is ahead. I think of all of those ancestors that did the same thing over the generations and beyond. Humans have celebrated the solstices long before written history documented the events. I celebrate the winter solstice because that means I'm that much closer to starting my seeds.

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What is the solstice?

The solstice is the exact time that the sun reaches its highest point in the sky (for summer) or the lowest point (for winter) and it only lasts a moment. We celebrate the day, however it is only that exact moment that can actually be called a solstice. The word solstice is actually derived from the Latin solstitium, which is a literal description of the sun standing still, which is what it appears to do when it reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky. Where the sun rises or sets really doesn't have that much to do with it, although that's what most of us, including myself, see. And unlike events such as sunrise or sunset, the solstice happens at exactly the same time all over the world, no matter what latitude or country you live in. The tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun determines the seasons and the winter solstice happens when the northern or southern hemisphere's tilt is away from the sun. The winter solstices for each hemisphere happens six months apart, so it is the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere. You will cast your longest shadow at noon on the winter solstice and your shortest one at noon on the summer one when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.

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The solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years

Everyone knows that the Earth rotates once on its axis every 24 hours. However, the axis isn't straight up and down through the center of the planet, it is slightly tilted. Right now, that tilt is 23.5 degrees, although that tilt has varies slightly over the thousands of years the Earth has been spinning. This causes variations in climate. Our ancestors had no way of knowing when the seasons changed other than to look at the sun and its position over the year. This told them when to plant, harvest and prepare for the winter. They often had ceremonies or celebrations at this time to ensure that the transition would be peaceful and bountiful. Every culture recognized the solstice. The Chinese had Dong Zhi, the Persians Yalda, the Romans had Saturnalia that was changed to Christmas once the people were Christianized, Scandinavia had Juul, which transitioned into Yule and Christmas and the Hopi celebrated Soyal with their Kachina gods each winter solstice. Most of these ceremonies were to beseech the gods for a return of the sun, since it was low in the sky at this time of year and the nights were quite long, or in the case of parts of Scandinavia, no sun at all.

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The solstice means seed shopping

The winter solstice means getting ready for a new gardening season for me. The seed and plant catalogs are arriving and although I generally order on line, there's something to be said for flipping through pages full of gardening eye-candy with a steaming mug of tea in my favorite mug and dream of the fabulous garden that I will grow come spring. Most times, my daydreams end up being better than the real thing, however it is a great way to fill the dark days, planning and preparing to plant all sorts of seeds. I start out with a massive wish list and as the days grow longer, I whittle it down to reality. I always try to plant something totally new to me each year. Whether it is a new vegetable, or a shrub or blooming plant, it must be something I've never grown before. I've learned that I love eggplant and am not so fond of Swiss chard. Poppies don't do well in my climate, however obedient plants thrive. I experiment with new melons, squashes, tomatoes and peppers. Each one has their own unique taste. I love okra and there's a red variety I have my eye on, that I think will look great in the garden and hopefully taste just as good. Winter is a time for planning and preparing, even though I won't start my seeds indoors until the end of February. Planning and looking through my saved seeds and catalogs gets me in the mood and ready for the spring weather. The winter solstice is a great starting point.

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