'The Sun is Low': Aspects of the Winter Solstice

I have news for you: 

The stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone

Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course

The sea running high...

       -- Anonymous, Ireland, 9th Century

Stags and sea?  In Denver?  Not so much, but wind and cold are certainly ...usually ...typical of winter on the Front Range.  And darkness?  Oh yes.  Daylight has been in steady decline since the autumnal equinox on September 22, and will not increase until after the winter solstice on December 21.  Whether you are a modern commuter coping with seasonal affective disorder or a prehistoric farmer, wondering whether the light will, in fact, return, the winter solstice has been part of human consciousness from time immemorial.

The etymology of "solstice" gives us a clue to the importance it had to our ancestors.  From the Latin sol sistere, solstice literally means "sun stands still."  Will it arc again to provide summer's light and warmth, or ... not?  We'll return to speculate on the importance of this question to cultures worldwide and across time but first, a few definitions.  The Oxford Dictionaries Online states simply enough that the winter solstice is "the solstice that marks the onset of winter, at the time of the shortest day, about December 22 in the northern hemisphere and June 21 in the southern hemisphere."  Here's more from The Gale Encyclopedia of Science

Solstice, in astronomy, refers to the two points in the ecliptic... for which the sun is the farthest distance from the celestial equator.  Thus, it also refers to the two dates of the year on which the sun reaches its northernmost (summer solstice) and southernmost (winter solstice) declination...

Try Wolfram Research for the full astronomical scoop.  You'll also find a reliable table of starting dates and times for seasonal events, including solstices, on the US Naval Observatory's Astronomical Applications website.

Evidence abounds that the solstices were important, meaningful events to prehistoric people, though precisely why that is remains an open question.  We see clues the story and song traditions of cultures worldwide.  If you're interested in learning more, the Denver Public Library's collections include print, audio and online resources for all ages to ignite your search.

In addition to folklore, a number of significant archaeological sites have proven connections to celestial events like the winter solstice and archaeoastronomers have cataloged locations on every continent which, in some way, mark the winter solstice.  Often this entails architectural and design features that track the movement of sunlight throughout the year.  Among the many remarkable examples are Stonehenge in the UK, Egypt's Karnak, Machu Picchu in Peru, New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and, a personal favorite, Newgrange in Ireland's Boyne Valley. Waiting in its dark inner chamber, watching the rising sun flood inside, illuminating the space on winter solstice was ... amazing. And now, we've come full circle back to Ireland, and I can give you the rest of the poem...

Deep-red the bracken; its shape is lost;

The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,

Cold has seized the birds' wings;

Season of ice, this is my news.


If you'd like more information on this or any subject, contact Reference Services, located on Level 3 of the Central Library:

Written by CJ on December 7, 2012


james on December 13, 2012


Interesting, thorough article on the solstice. I'm always amazed at how many smart, professional people we have here at DPL who are willing to share their knowledge.

Leigh Ann on December 13, 2012


Thank you for a wonderful blog, CJ! I wholeheartedly agree with you, Newgrange is an amazing place.

Isn't it interesting how so many early peoples/cultures celebrated the winter solstice--perhaps it was their way to express hope for the future and to realize that cold, dark winter doesn't last forever! Happy holidays!


Thank you, Leigh Ann! RTE (Ireland's national TV and radio) has several short videos on Newgrange at winter solstice on YouTube that I thought about including. Brevity is hard!

Ingrid on December 15, 2012


Lovely poem. Sparked my curiosity about Newgrange and looked at the YouTube video. So interesting. I was so lucky to walk the grounds at Machu Picchu and wonder at all they must have known about the celestial happenings. Thanks for a great blog post.


I would love to visit Machu Picchu some day! My blog's a little thin on solstice sites in the southern hemisphere, and I wonder if there are more in Peru? Nazca Lines? I'll look into it! Thanks for writing, Ingrid.

Sharon on December 22, 2012


Great posting Cathy, a lovely combination of poetry and science. Now that the Mayan nonsense is over, another Mesoamerican site would be the Temple of Kukulkan or El Castillo at Chichen Itza: http://sacredsites.com/americas/mexico/chichen_itza.html It celebrates the solstices and equinoxes. It would be a good stop over on the way to Machu Picchu. Please keep writing- and happy Holidays!


Thanks for the link and kind words, Sharon! I wonder if anyone does solstice tours along the lines of those for eclipses? Must investigate. Happy holidays to you too!

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