From the earliest times, human beings around the world have observed the heavens with keen interest and curiosity. Quite often, these observations have led to the development of rituals, celebrations, and holidays which are intimately intertwined with observable celestial events. Such is certainly the case for the sun, the most important of all celestial objects, and its relationship to the holiday season we celebrate at this time each year.
As the Earth orbits the sun, its axis of rotation is tilted at a fixed orientation with respect to the Earth’s orbital plane. To an observer on the Earth the sun appears to annually oscillate north and south in the sky. During the autumn months in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun seems to gradually to move toward the southern horizon. As it does so, the nights become longer and the days shorter, until the sun reaches it southernmost point in the sky, the so-called winter solstice point. Upon arriving at the winter solstice point, the sun then “turns around” and begins to creep back toward the north. Now the days begin to lengthen and the darkness recedes before the onslaught of daylight.
It is thought the very earliest cultures observed this behavior of the sun and became alarmed at what seemed to be the sun’s imminent departure from the sky, an event which would leave the Earth in perpetual darkness. To forestall such a catastrophe, a variety of rituals and ceremonies were cleverly designed to “call” the sun back from its southward journey. Eventually it was recognized that the sun always reverses its course when it reaches the winter solstice point, and with that realization, the winter rituals evolved into ceremonies of renewal and celebrations of the rebirth and replenishment of the sun’s life-giving energy.
As one might expect, the ancient Romans adroitly hewed out one of the more impressive winter solstice traditions with their celebrations of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. In the fourth century A.D., however, the unconquered sun yielded to the birth of Christ as the centerpiece of the winter solstice celebrations in the West, and to this day, Christ’s nativity, with its promise of spiritual renewal and the forces of light turning back those of darkness, complete with an attendant bright star for guidance, continues to resonate with the earlier themes of winter solstice celebrations.
Restoration, renewal, and the return of light have also found their way into the celebration of the Jewish winter holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in the second century B.C. by the lighting of candles over the eight days of festivities.
Even in a contemporary society that has drifted all too heavily toward the secular, winter solstice themes are readily apparent in such forms as decorative lights on houses and buildings, New Year’s resolutions, and a magical Santa Claus who renews the Christmas spirit with his impressive outburst of activity each and every Christmas Eve.
May your holiday season be blessed with an abundance of light and renewal.
Elsewhere in the sky: The planet Venus dominates the early evening December Colorado sky and makes for an excellent “Christmas Star” this year. The “Twilight Queen” sets over three hours after the sun all month long.
The planet Mercury can be seen to the southwest as a reddish-orange object below and to the right of Venus for an hour after sunset during the first two weeks of December.
The planet Mars begins December evenings just to the west of the north-south line and is visible to the west throughout the first half of the night on the Capricornus-Aquarius border.
The planet Jupiter rises about an hour after midnight and shines as a yellowish-white object in central Virgo.
The planet Saturn emerges from the solar glare during the last week of December and glows to the southeast as a golden-hued object for about an hour before sunrise.