- 1 What Happens During the Winter Solstice?
- 2 Indigenous and Natural Ways of Relating to the Winter Solstice
- 3 The Winter Solstice as a Natural Calendar
- 4 Watching the Sun: Choosing a Fixed Horizon
- 5 How to Track the Sun and Read the Sky
- 6 How the Maya Track the Agricultural Seasons
- 7 Suggested Useful Days to Mark the Position of the Sun
What Happens During the Winter Solstice?
The scientific explanation is that the northern region of the Earth is at its farthest tilt away from the Sun and after the solstice the northern region of Earth slowly moves to tilt in the opposite direction, toward the Sun.
It’s the tilt of the Earth that causes the winter season. When the northern or southern hemisphere tilts away from the Sun, that hemisphere experiences winter. That hemisphere receives less direct sunlight, as the sun shines on the Earth at a lower angle. This region receives less of the Sun’s energy. Less energy equals less warmth.
So, in winter the northern hemisphere which includes North America, the Arctic, and Eurasia is tilting away from the Sun and is experiencing winter. The southern hemisphere which includes 1/3 of Africa, 90% of South America, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and many Pacific Islands are experiencing summer.
Indigenous and Natural Ways of Relating to the Winter Solstice
I greatly simplified the scientific explanation of the cause of the Winter Solstice. In researching this post I found detailed description of what happens during the winter solstice with plenty of math and dense scientific wording. The scientific explanation of the Winter Solstice is really not very helpful to humans living by the natural rhythms of the Earth. See if the following information is more useful to you.
The Winter Solstice as a Natural Calendar
Using the Winter Solstice as a starting point of reference, the Sun rises on the winter solstice in the southeast portion of the sky. If you stand facing exactly toward the east, then the Sun is rising southeast of where you are facing.
During the summer months I can see the Sun rise straight across from my bedroom window. As autumn and winter progresses the Sun rises further and further southeast. Right now in December I have to cran my neck to see the Sun rise. It rises way to the south of my bedroom window.
The Sun rises northward a little more each day after the solstice. Each day the daylight is longer. At the spring equinox, day and night are of equal length. The Sun at true east on the horizon. The Sun continues to move northward until the Summer Solstice. At the Summer Solstice the Sun rises at its farthest point north in the sky. The Sun’s northern journey stops.
During the solstices, the Sun appears to literally stops in its movement along the horizon. The word ‘Sun (sol) means standstill”. So, solstice means the day in which the Sun stands still. This standstill gives us the longest day of the year.
Still it’s hard to determine the exact day when the solstice arrives, the Sun moves so slowly. Some cultures say the Sun stands still for a number of days, often four. So, the days the Sun doesn’t move north or south is the day of the Solstice. This holds for both the Winter and Summer Solstices. After three or four days the Sun rises begin to move again.
After the winter solstice, the Sun reverses direction and heads back north. Each morning it rises a little further north along the horizon. It picks up speed and by the spring equinox the length of day and night are equal. Equinox means “equal night” in late Middle English.
Watching the Sun: Choosing a Fixed Horizon
The Sun appears to rise and set at a different place in the sky each day. If you keep track of the Sun’s rising and setting positions you will see this is true.
To follow the Sun, choose a fixed horizon. The fixed horizon needs to face east in the direction of the rising Sun. The fixed horizon needs to face west to track the positions of the setting Sun.
The fixed horizon can be the roofs of houses or buildings, a ridge in the land, large rock formations, or a range of mountains and its’ peaks. Some land feature that is unlikely to change for several years or longer.
Plants such as trees can be removed, cut down, or blown over in a strong wind. They may not be the best choice for a fixed horizon. But if that is all you have, then a tree it is.
The back of my house faces east. I use the roofline of the houses across from the back of my house as my fixed horizon. The houses across from me have been in the same spots for almost a hundred years.
Mark the East and West
Take a photograph or make a drawing of your fixed horizon. One photo or drawing for the eastern horizon and perhaps another for the western if you are tracking the setting Sun.
Using a compass, mark the direction that is east. To the north of east is northeast and moving toward the south is southeast.
Using a compass, mark the west on your western/setting Sun horizon. To the west is northwest and moving toward the south is southwest.
The Sun will rise true east and set true west on the equinoxes.
Don’t have a compass? I downloaded a free app for my smartphone. Check your smartphone’s app store. Does your car have compass or a GPS device?
How to Track the Sun and Read the Sky
Mark on the photograph or drawing the rising (or setting if keeping track of sunsets) of the Sun on important and useful days. That’s it.
Keep marking positions for the planting season, say December to June, or what works best for you. Now you can read the sky at anytime of year as a natural calendar. If you garden, combine the position of the rising or setting Sun with the presence or absence of the Pleiades, you’ll have a very good and useful planting calendar. See also Phenology is Deep Ecology
How the Maya Track the Agricultural Seasons
Watch the video to see tracking the Sun in practice.
Suggested Useful Days to Mark the Position of the Sun
- Winter Solstice
- Summer Solstice
- Last frost date for spring planting
- Days to plant corn, squash or beans (or any other staple or important crop)
- First day for fall planting (this happens in July or August in northern hemisphere temperature regions)
- First expected frost day in autumn
- Important fishing and hunting times
- When certain natural foods are ready for harvest or foraging
I hope you found this article useful. Did you realize the Sun moved across the sky? Did you think it always rose exactly in the east? What do you plan to track through the seasons?
This post is updated and greatly expanded from the original of 22 December 2013.
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Winter Solstice 2022