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Solstice carries on an ancient tradition

Winter arrives on the longest night of the year, a longstanding symbol of rebirth

Today is the winter solstice, the first day of winter by most contemporary calendars and midwinter's day according to most ancient calendars. The event officially took place this morning at 5:14 a.m. PST.

For those of us on the northern half of the globe, today marks the longest night and shortest day of the year. The situation is just the opposite for the folks down under. For people living in the Southern Hemisphere, today is the first day of summer ' the longest day and shortest night of the year.

The Northern Hemisphere has been tilting away from the sun since autumn, with the Earth's north pole leaning back into shadow. As our planet continues in its orbit, those of us living on its northern half experience the days getting shorter and the nights getting longer as we head toward winter.

What we see at this time is the sun rising late in the morning from a position south of east. We watch as it makes a low arc across the sky during the day, before setting in the late afternoon at a point south of west.

When we reach Dec. 21, daylight hours are the shortest they will be all year. As a result, the Dec. 21 night is the longest night of the year. Solstice means sun standing, which is what the sun appears to be doing on the solstice as it rises about the same time every morning for about three days in a row and hovers its closest to the horizon at noon.

In earlier times, people considered the apparent lessening powers of the sun as a time of death before rebirth. It was a time when the world of nature seemed outwardly cold and barren, but was inwardly gathering strength for rebirth. Farmers took a much-needed break from the rigors of tending the land and began planning for the spring. Even today, farmers often use the winter months to pore over seed catalogs and repair fences and machinery for the spring planting season.

Midwinter on ancient calendars occurred at the solstice ' winter having begun back at the beginning of November.

Once the solstice takes place, people through the ages have been glad to see winter leaving, the sun climbing higher, and the days getting longer ' a process that begins Sunday. the time the spring equinox rolls around in mid-March, day and night will have balanced themselves out.

Because the sun seemed weak and far away in the wintertime, people lit candles and bonfires to strengthen it and bring it back to life, or to remind them of its light. Fires and candles figure prominently in most of the winter festivals from the solstice, Hanukkah and Christmas to Kwanzaa.

When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century and Christianity spread, people began to mix their pre-existing winter solstice customs with those of their new religion. Christmas thus became both religious and secular.

There had been no generally accepted date for Christmas until Constantine decreed that it be Dec. 25, the same day people had been celebrating the solstice and an important Mithraic feast, the birth of the Unconquered Sun. Prior to the emperor's decree, people chose to celebrate Christmas either on Dec. 25 or Jan. 6 (Epiphany), the traditional date of the visit of the three wise men. In Rome, the days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 became the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The familiar Christmas symbols of holly and the ivy, mistletoe, evergreen trees, candlelight, gift-giving and hopes for peace on Earth, are hundreds of years older than Christmas. They come from many cultures throughout history that have celebrated the time of the winter solstice as the most important festival of the year.

Reach Tempo Editor Richard Moeschl at 776-4486, or e-mail