December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice and Eclipse Day!

A fairly rare event—the total eclipse of the moon—and a once-a-year event—winter solstice—are happening on the same day!

The total eclipse of the moon happened VERY early this morning (or even last night, for West-Coast types like me). Did you see it?

Here in Southern California, we seem to be living at the bottom of a very big shower stall right now, because it's been raining HARD for days. (I know many people have to deal with this much rain on a regular basis, but we're used to drought and earthquakes, not flooding and inundation!) ...The point is, we couldn't see the eclipse because of the total cloud cover.

A total lunar eclipse is when the Earth gets between the Moon and the Sun, and the Moon falls totally within Earth's shadow. The Moon, which is full or nearly full, usually shines (reflecting the Sun's light) a bright white color, but during an eclipse, the moon seems to become gray, then orange, then deep red.

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year—and, of course, the longest night. Most cultures nowadays count the winter solstice as the day that winter begins.

NOTE: Most of the world's population lives in the northern hemisphere. However, millions of people live in the southern hemisphere, and today is their SUMMER solstice—the shortest night and the longest day of the year!

How do (and have) people celebrate(d) the winter solstice?

Germanic countries (including the Scandinavian countries), long before Christianity in Europe, held a winter festival called Yule or Yule-tide during the solstice. Customs such as burning a Yule log, decorating the house with evergreen branches and wreaths, lighting candles, eating a Yule feast, and Yule-tide singing (or Wassailing)—all of these solstice customs are now commonly associated with Christmas. Characters that haven't made it into  widespread use in Christmas traditions include the Yule goat, pictured here. 

A Druidic tradition (think of the people who built England's Stonehenge) calls the winter solstice “Alban Arthuan,” which means Light of Arthur, or “Alban Arthan,” which means Light of Winter. A poetic interpretation of the Light of Arthur is that the legendary figure of King Arthur (of “Knights of the Round Table” fame) still sleeps in a mountain, ready to return to his people if he is needed. The Druidic holiday colors are red, green, and white—again, colors that today are often associated with Christmas.

Ancient Rome celebrated Saturnalia for a week around the solstice. There were some nice aspects of the holiday—wars were interrupted by temporary truces, for example, and slaves were served by their masters—and there were some familiar customs such as exchanging gifts and lighting candles. However, apparently the holiday eventually started to become less fun, with too much wild behavior and even crime.

Other places in the world celebrate the solstice with bonfires, ritual baths and purification rites, feasting, and even special dances.

Special places for celebrating the solstice...
  • Newgrange is a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland, with a huge circular stone structure estimated to be around 5,000 years old (older, even, than the Egyptian pyramids at Giza!). It was built so that a shaft of sunlight would illuminate a particular special spot on the dawn of winter solstice.
(By the way, a megalith is a huge stone used to build a structure or monument.)

  • The Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, was built about a thousand years ago. A modern-day artist noticed that, during the summer solstice, a slender beam of sunlight passing between two rock monoliths exactly bisected a spiral-shaped symbol. She came back to the spot on the winter solstice and, sure enough, a ray of sunlight bisected another, smaller spiral. Unfortunately, so many people have gone to see the sight of these daggers of sunlight, the trail eroded, the monoliths shifted, and the Sun Daggers no longer bisect the spirals!

  • The Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa may have helped medieval astronomers track celestial bodies; modern-day scholars note that the brightest stars in Orion line up with several monoliths during the winter solstice.

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