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Depending on the hemisphere you live in late today or early tomorrow - December 22nd, will be the first day of Winter or Summer. Also known as Winter (Summer) Solstice it is the shortest day of the year for those living in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest for the lucky folks in the Southern Hemisphere.
The primary reason for the different seasons in the two hemispheres is that as the Earth rotates around the sun, it also rotates around its own axis. However this rotation is not straight, but tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees, causing there to be less light delivered to the Northern Hemisphere and more to the Southern Hemisphere at this particular time. The solstices occur when the sun is the greatest distance from Equator, the imaginary line that divides Earth into the two hemispheres.
While we know the scientific reason behind the winter solstice today, for ancient cultures this day marked the turning point of the cold dark winters and the fear that the energy-giving sun was leaving them. That's because after this date, the days started to become longer again, and while many months of winter still remained, people knew that the sun would be back.
One of the most famous examples of this is Stonehenge. Located in Wiltshire, England, this pre-historic burial site, is believed to have been constructed to celebrate winter solstice. Hundreds of people still gather here each year, to celebrate a pagan tradition called Yule, one of the oldest known solstice-related events.
Another famous site is Newgrange in Boyne Valley,Ireland (see picture), which is thought to be over 5,000 years old. It is a huge stone structure that is designed to receive a shaft of light into its central chamber at the dawn of winter solstice.
The light in turn, illuminates incredibly intricate carvings. The whole event that lasts for about 17 minutes is so popular, that viewing tickets are distributed via lottery. Historians estimate that it must have taken 300 men about 20 years to build such an elaborate structure during the ancient times.
In the USA, many cities have started their own winter solstice traditions. The city of Seattle,holds various events, ranging from a Winter Solstice candlelight walk along the Snohomish River to a potluck feast. In Chicago, the day will be celebrated with an hour-long pre-dawn concert that will begin at 6.am and feature percussion instrument music from all over the world.
Do you have a favorite winter solstice tradition in your town or with your family? If so, be sure to share it with all of us, by adding your comments below.