Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Winter Solstice (But not really)

The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. In our calendaring system, it also marks the first night of winter.

But in many ancient European calendars, the solstice marked mid-winter. In Gaelic calendars, for example there were eight major calendar markers – though it’s disputed how greatly each was celebrated.

The eight markers were made up of the two solstices, the two equinoxes, and then four cross-quarter days – the days halfway between the a solstice and an equinox. These markers divided the year into eighths and governed what is now referred to as the Wheel of the Year.

We essentially still have eight year marker days, but they’ve shifted names and meaning.

Groundhog’s Day, for example, is essentially the cross-quarter day between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Today, Groundhog’s Day marks the middle of winter – will the groundhog see his shadow? But more traditionally, it – or more properly Imbolc marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

I’ve never been quite clear on how the Solstice went from representing the middle of winter to representing the beginning of winter – perhaps it’s just one of those things, like the Great Vowel Shift.

Also, there was an interesting piece yesterday claiming that this year’s solstice was, in fact, the longest night EVER. Pointing to the continual slowing of the earth’s rotation, the article estimated that every year’s solstice was negligibly longer than the last.

Of course, that could only make me think of Office Space’s Peter Gibbons reflecting that “every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.”

But, it turns out the original article is not quiet true. They quickly posted a correction, clarifying that while the earth’s rotation is trending towards slowing down, there’s actually quite a bit of year-to-year variation.

And by “quite a bit,” of course, I actually mean changes so miniscule that nobody without a properly calibrated device of some sort would ever know the difference.

In this graphic you can see the average length of a day charted over time. As you can see – maybe – “the longest night in Earth’s history likely occurred in 1912.”

So that was the longest night ever.


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