Winter officially starts next week on December 21, coinciding with the Northern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice. To be precise, in Alberta it will happen at 3:44 am. This is the astronomical method of marking the seasons. Astronomically, Spring starts with the Equinox in March, Summer starts with the Solstice in June, and Fall with the Equinox in September.
The Solstice in December marks the shortest day of the year, the point when the Earth’s northern pole reaches its tilt farthest away from the sun. The opposite Solstice in June is when the northern pole comes to its furthest tilt towards the sun – the longest day of the year.
The Equinox of March and September are the half-way points between the June and December Solstice.
The other method to define the four seasons is the Meteorological approach. This method relates more to the typical temperatures of the seasons, divided equally amongst our 12 calendar months:
• Spring: March 1 – May 31
• Summer: June 1 – August 31
• Autumn: September 1 – November 30
• Winter: December 1 – February 28 (29)
During the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze age (2,000 – 4,000 BC), people began to pay attention to, and follow, the rhythms of the natural world. This included astronomical events. It helped in the annual planning of important tasks such as planting, harvesting and the mating of animals.
The Winter Solstice, at a practical and a symbolic level, marked the end of darkening days, and the welcoming of increasingly lighter days. It was the time that raised animals were slaughtered: for lack of animal feed, and lack of fruit and vegetables for humans. As well, the fermenting process for early beers and wines was done about this time. This sudden supply of meat and drink developed into annual festivals, celebrating a time of plenty amidst the turn from short dark days, to the promise of summer, warmth and light. Symbolic parallels emerged celebrating the end of darkness and hardship, and a return to light and goodness.
Ancient pagan traditions, from what we know now as Scandinavia and Germany, included a 12-day celebration of the Winter Solstice. It was called the time of Yule, a time of reawakening. Many components of that celebration found their way into our Christmas traditions: The Christmas tree, wreath, yuletide log, etc.
Many other cultures around the world have Winter Solstice traditions including:
Canadians have come to excel at making the most of cold winter days. Next week, despite what the temperature might be, get out and enjoy the Winter Solstice. Celebrate in the face of darkness and for the promise of the returning sun!