Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Shortest Day of the Year or the Longest Night of the Year

I used to scratch my head when I saw calendars that marked December 21st as the first day of winter. As a life long Alaskan I thought, first day of winter my ass, we’ve been in it for a couple months and we are just hitting the heart of it next month and have more months to go. How can December 21st be the first day of winter? Maybe in Kansas, Hawaii or California some exotic place in rest of America…
I recently learned while researching this blog that the change of seasons are marked by changes in the Sun cycle, these changes are called Solstices and Equinoxes. So it’s not the temperature or weather changes they are using- it is the cycle of the sun and the axis of the earth.

Meanwhile here in Alaska depending on your location and the impact of global climate changes, winter starts in September, October or November. Also dependent on geographic location in this massive state is the length of the long winter night. For example here in Anchorage located at the south central portion of the state on December 21, 2012 the sun will rise 10:14 AM and set at 3:42 PM the length of our day will be 5h 27m 40s. Sounds like a long night right? Not compared to Barrow, the northern most city of Alaska, which is around 728 miles as the crow flies from Anchorage. In Barrow the sun went down on November 17th at 1:44 pm and it is still down, in fact the sun will not come up in Barrow until January 23 at 1:11 pm, so there night is three months, not 30 days as many of been misled to believe. The long winter night in Barrow lasts 67 days that is 9 weeks and 4 days. So here in Anchorage I can’t complain or say that 5 and ½ hours of daylight is paltry when I look at a night that lasts for 3 months.

Interestingly many pagan rituals of winter Solstice permeate our modern culture today. The celebration of the returning Sun can be found as far back as Ancient Egypt as they rejoiced in the rebirth of Horus the god of the sky and his left eye being the Sun and the right eye being the moon. The Romans partied like Romans during Saturnalia a celebration of their god of abundance and agriculture Saturn during the winter Solstice. Not only did they party like Romans, but masters would serve their slaves, kind of like boxing day without the slaving part.

The pre-Christian cultures of Northern Europe also celebrated the winter solstice and the coming of the longer days with the burning of a Jul or Yule log. They would cut a tree that could burn for twelve days as a symbol of fertility and the return of the sun. A pig would be sacrificed and eaten at the feast. They would decorate trees with pieces of cloth and gifts to tree spirit, which also occurred in the Druidic Cultures as well. I even read on the Skanland website that a large wheel would be lit on fire and rolled down a hill to encourage the sun to return.

In Alaska, Russian Orthodox Christmas will be celebrated on January 7, 2013 and it is kicked off with Selaviq or the Starring. It is a wonderful fun filled event, Stars made of cloth or yarn on a wood frame, which represent the guiding star that led the Three Wise Men to Jesus are blessed and spun. These stars travel from house to house in the community blessing the people and their homes. The carriers and stars are welcomed into homes for tea and feasting.

So whatever you may be celebrating on these dark winter nights I suggest you turn out all your electrical lights and burn a few candles. I have been doing that since last summer to get a feel for the historical I am writing set in Iceland during the early settlement period. I know one thing for sure all those winter Solstice parties had a lot of candles, which is probably where are tradition of Christmas/Fairy lights comes from. Careful, don’t stub your toe while negotiating your living room by candlelight and please don’t do an Edie and catch something on fire!
Happy Solstice, Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy Festivus, Happy Chrismukkah, however you choose to celebrate the long winter nights in the Northern hemisphere enjoy!

--- Carmen Bydalek


Lynn Lovegreen said...

Great post, Carmen, lots of great information! Happy winter solstice! :-)

Morgan O'Reilly said...

Very interesting, Carmen! I learned a few things and once reminded of Barrow's long dark "night" I feel less inclined to whine about shortened days!