The winter solstice happened as I started writing this column December 21, 2021, the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, published since the 1790s (I get the daily version in my morning emails), winter officially began at 10 o’clock in the morning. For the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on June 20 or 21.
The good news is on December 22, the days begin to grow longer until we reach the summer solstice June 21— the first day of summer and the longest day of the year.
This is all thanks to Earth’s tilted axis, which makes it so that one half of Earth is pointed away from the Sun and the other half is pointed towards it at the time of the solstice. On the day of the winter solstice, we are tilted as far away from the Sun as possible, which means that the Sun’s path across the sky is as low in the sky as it can be.
The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still,” says the almanac. It means “sun stand still.” For a few days before and after the solstice, the Sun’s path across the sky appears to freeze. The change in its noontime elevation is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still. The day after the winter solstice, the Sun’s path begins to advance northward again, eventually reaching its most northerly point on the day of the summer solstice.
So on December 22, as I continue writing, we’re on our way toward springtime! (My phone says it is 3 degrees above zero, a couple seconds ago, it was a not-so-balmy 6 below.)
When we reach the summer solstice in June, the Sun will reach its most northerly spot, directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (which runs through Mexico, northern Africa, and southern Asia). The summer solstice is the longest day of the year (the day with the most daylight hours) and marks the beginning of summer.
As for the term “equinox,” it means “equal,” as day and night on the equinoxes are of roughly equal length. In the spring (March) and the fall (September), the Sun’s path brings it directly above Earth’s equator.
Now we in northern Minnesota might grouse about the ever-shortening hours of daylight — seems it starts getting dark at 4 in the afternoon and we don’t see the sunrise until 8 a.m. But think about the really far north, as in northern Finland where my paternal grandfather Henry Lampsa was born in 1877 in Kestila. Like my brother said, our ancestors came from near the 64th parallel. At this latitude the sun is visible for 21 hours, 1 minute during the summer solstice and just 4 hours, 12 minutes during the winter solstice. Let’s say the sunrise is at 10:07 a.m. and any tasks you need to finish before it gets dark, do them before 2:18 p.m. And if you’re above the Arctic Circle, in summer it’s 24 hours of daylight, 24 in darkness in winter. Then he looked on his IPad and said there’s a place in Russia called Norilsk that gets up to 86 degrees in the summer and 58 below in winter. And there’s a city in northernmost Finland called Rovaniemi that has 175 days of snow, but this summer had 122 hours of continuous sunshine, breaking a record of 1911. The Finns say Santa Claus lives in Rovaniemi.
And remember, we’re only three months away from spring!