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Winter solstice: The darkest day of the year, with more light to follow

Shirley McMarlin
| Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, 12:06 p.m.

You'd think that the darkest day of the year would come in the depths of January or February, when we've despaired of ever being warm again.

But no, the darkest and shortest day of the year is actually the first day of winter, the winter solstice.

As we mark that day for 2017 on Dec. 21, here are a few solstice statistics and observations.

(And remember, going forward, we will gain a minute of daylight each day until Jan. 7, when we'll add two minutes a day as we head for the summer solstice.)

What is the winter solstice, anyway?

It's the point in the Earth's orbit when the North Pole is tilted at its maximum away from the sun. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it's the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. But, while winter arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, people in the Southern Hemisphere experience the day as their summer solstice with the longest stretch of daylight.

Why isn't the solstice on the same day every year?

The solstice typically occurs around Dec. 21 or 22, though it can be as early as Dec. 20 or as late as Dec. 23, because our calendars aren't a precise match to the solar year.

Solstice celebrations

• Yule was a historical religious festival observed by the ancient Germanic peoples in conjunction with the winter solstice. Yule celebration predates Christian holiday and tradition by thousands of years in Scandinavia.

The celebrations were eventually Christianized, resulting in the term Christmastide.

• England's famous Stonehenge lures thousands of visitors during the summer and winter solstices. Revelers gather at the prehistoric site of ancient stones in Wiltshire to sing, dance, play instruments, kiss the stones and do yoga as they wait for the sun to rise.

The iconic Stonehenge is known for its precise alignment with the sun's movement and may have been a sacred place of worship and celebration for solstices for thousands of years, according to English Heritage, which manages the site.

• Revelers descend on Hollabrunn, Austria, each year during the winter solstice to watch a swarm of people dressed like Krampus — the half-demon, half-goat counterpart to Santa Claus — terrorize and tease the crowd in horned masks, fur body suits and whips.

• Dozens of people, selected through an annual lottery, get the chance to stand inside the Newgrange monument in Ireland and absorb the first rays of the day as they fill the ancient chambers during the winter solstice.

• In Japan, people traditionally soak in hot baths with the yuzu citrus fruit to welcome the winter solstice and protect their bodies from the common cold.

A winter solstice feast

Here's a hearty, soul-warming menu from partycurrent.com :

• Roast meats, stews and homemade pies.

• Roasted parsnips and other root vegetables.

• Homemade chicken or beef soup.

• Crumbled goat's cheese with crackers.

• Big loaves of bread, served whole, so people can tear chunks.

• Baked potatoes, roasted in foil on a bonfire.

Winter solstice quotes to warm your soul

• "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness." — John Steinbeck

• "The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable." — Gary Zukav

• "In winter, the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity." — John Burroughs

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.

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