The longest night of the year is coming today when the Northern Hemisphere will have its shortest daylight period of the year, about nine hours and 32 minutes of sunlight.
The reason, of course, is no mystery. The Earth’s axis is on a 23.5 degree slant, which, combined with the planet’s orbit, makes days longer or shorter, depending on where the Earth is in its orbit.
Since late June, the sun has been on a daily arc that has steadily moved south, lower and lower in the sky. Today at 12:11 p.m., it will reach what appears a standstill, then slowly — almost imperceptibly to the naked eye for a few days — starts moving back to the north.
These events happen like clockwork, but that doesn’t mean mankind has always known exactly how that clock worked.
Imagine what it would have been like thousands of years ago. An individual looking up at the sky would only know that the sun appeared to cross over the Earth and that he was seeing less and less of it each day. Folks back then didn’t know what a star really was, but they knew our star — the sun — meant warmth, growth and survival. And they no doubt had great concern each year that it could one day slip below the horizon for good, making the land dark, cold and uninhabitable.
So, it was not without some great anxiety that the sun’s southward decline was observed. And there was a great deal of rejoicing when the sun found it vigor and began climbing higher in the sky each day.
Experts say it’s no mistake that celebrations have accumulated at the start of winter. In ancient times, the sun’s movement back up was a reason to rejoice. Romans celebrated Saturnalia, Scandinavians burned huge yule logs in celebration and Native Americans had rites and ceremonies aimed at encouraging the return of the sun to its former majesty. When early Christians were looking for a time to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, a date that no one knows but many have suggested was in the spring, they designated Dec. 25, the final day of Saturnalia, in hopes of attracting pagans to Christianity.
The mystery is gone, but there’s still something that feels a little mystical about the long winter’s night. With plentiful electrical power and much more knowledge, it isn’t foreboding like it was to our ancestors. In fact, in a period of rush and hurry, it can be a good time to steal away for some quiet reflection and thought. We can rest a lot easier than they did, knowing that in a few months the spring, and the life it brings, is certain to return.
— The Albany Herald Editorial Board