Margate Pier

Ventnor pier at sunrise. During solstice the sun stops its southerly migration and then starts to rise toward the north, ushering in longer days and soon warmer months.

Steve Jasiecki

Dec. 21 marks the winter solstice, the official start of the first day of winter.

Because the Earth is tilted on its axis at a 23.4-degree angle, the planet experiences different seasons throughout the year. As the Earth revolves around the sun heading toward winter, the sun rises later and sets earlier each day, giving us shorter and shorter daylight hours.

We lose about two minutes of daylight a day, and by Dec. 21 the sun is up for only nine hours and 27 minutes.

If you were to watch where the sun rises over a period of weeks, you would notice that the sun rises a little more to the south each day. The same is true for sunsets. Every day the sun sets a little bit more south, until it reaches the point of the winter solstice.

The term solstice literally means “sun stands still.” On the day of the solstice, the sun stops its southerly migration and appears to rise in the same spot for a few days (sun stands still). It then changes direction and starts to rise and set in a northerly direction.

This change of direction means the sun will take longer to cross the sky, and we will start to gain about two minutes of daylight a day until we reach the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

Ancient civilizations recognized the patterns of the seasons. They noticed how the sun arced its way across the sky. They noted the difference in its height and motions throughout the year. They created monuments and calendars that accurately predicted the seasons.

That was important because it told them when to sow and harvest their crops. It told them when to prepare for the dark, cold, winter months. It also told some cultures when the annual flooding of rivers would occur.

They were very in tune with the rhythms and cycles of the Earth. Their survival depended on it.

It’s no wonder that when the Earth reached that point in time during the long, cold nights of winter, when the shortest day was reached, the ancients rejoiced and held great celebrations.

Many of our holiday traditions are based on those ancient ceremonies. Decorating trees, burning the yule log and caroling are direct assimilations of these ancient rituals.

People were happy that the days would start to get longer and soon the Earth would warm up again. To them it was the rebirth of the sun.

Here is a little experiment to get a better perspective of how the celestial cycles work. At different times throughout the year, go to a favorite place where you can watch the sunrise or sunset. Note the time and the location when it rises and sets.

As the year progresses you may be surprised how much of a difference there is in the sunrises and sunsets between the winter and summer seasons.

Seeing how the mechanics of the world works creates understanding, and having a greater understanding creates a greater appreciation of the world in which we live.

Then we should strive to take better care of it.

Sustainable Downbeach is working toward creating a healthier, friendlier community with an eye on protecting the environment. For information or to get involved see Sustainable Downbeach on Facebook.

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