Day 8: The Winter Solstice.

Today, December 21, marks the start of winter and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Otherwise known as the Winter Solstice.

The meaning behind solstice is Latin in origin and is “”sun stand” or “sun stands still” When the sun is at its furthest point from the earth the marking of the winter solstice occurs. People in ancient times were perplexed by this concept and wondered if and how it would ever return. Their solution was to praise and make offering to the gods, in hopes that the sun would return. Out of this the celebrations for winter solstice began. For hundreds of thousands of years, people around the world have built monuments, temples, and other buildings to face and coincide with the rising winter sun. While this time of year saw shortened daylight and was oftentimes gloomy for many, it also signaled the hope for Spring, warmer temperatures, and the promise of new life. It was for this reason that the winter solstice was to be celebrated.

Throughout the world, but particularly in Egypt and Europe, people would construct vast buildings in recognition of this special time of year. The stones were placed so precisely that on this one day, at the exact moment, they would line up with the rising sun as it came over the horizon. The ingenuity, skill, and craftsmanship that these architects took upon themselves is truly astounding. By charting the patterns of the sun, they created something that has stood the test of time. Today, Stonehenge in England, Newgrange in Ireland, and Egypt’s Karnak Temple are but just three of these cherished historical sites where you can witness this phenomenon.

Perhaps the most well-known site for winter solstice celebrations, and a favorite for student tours, is that of the World Heritage Site at Stonehenge in England. Here, massive pillars of stone have been calculated in such a manner that no-one has been able to crack the great archaeological mystery behind their layout. While some believe that Stonehenge was built to correspond with the setting sun, others see it as having nothing to do with the marking of celestial events. One thing is for certain, the popularity and intrigue surrounding this sacred historical site shows no signs of waning. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the English Heritage site will be live streaming this years winter solstice. 

Though it may not be as well known as Stonehenge, Newgrange in Ireland is equally as impressive. Older than both Stonehenge by 1,00 years and the Egyptian pyramids by 500 years, Newgrange (Bru na Boinne as it is known in Irish) in the Boyne valley also remains an archaeological mystery. However, numerous scholars, researchers, and experts have agreed that the the mound tomb was constructed for religious purposes. There are several inner chambers as well as a roof-box which perfectly aligns with the Winter Solstice every year. If you’re keen to experience this breathtaking site firsthand, then you’re in luck because each year a lottery is held for a select group of individuals to step inside the chamber and see the light come flooding in. To this day, it remains one of the earliest and greatest architectural feats the world as ever seen.      

On December 21, viewers who are lucky enough to be inside Karnak Temple in Egypt will see for themselves as the sun steadily rises in the entryway. Between the great walls of this stately monument, the sun sets everything aglow as light floods in illuminating the sanctuary of Amun. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the sun continues on its way. The ancient Egyptians are known to have built many temples in awareness of the celestial events.

As we’re exploring the world differently this year many sites, including Stonehenge and Newgrange, will be live streaming the winter solstice so people can experience it in all corners of the world. You can find links here and here for your viewing pleasure.

Tonight also marks the close alignment of Jupiter and Saturn where they will almost appear as a double planet! Called a conjunction, it will be the closet they have come together in centuries. With it happening around Christmas, it has earned the nickname “Christmas Star.” “You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky,” wrote astronomer Patrick Hartigan, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University in Houston.        

As we admire these historic sites, that have stood as a testament to time, remember that they were a great significance for many cultures. The air of mystery that surrounds them will harken you to always return and discover the secrets within their walls. As we move through the beginning of the end for dark nights and shorter days take hope in knowing that a brighter future is ahead. Look towards the horizon and night sky for guidance and it will show you her beauty. 

Happy Winter Solstice!

Until tomorrow,