Thursday, December 20, 2007

When Night Lasts Too Long

We went to bed with rain pattering on the roof and woke up with the same sound. It is smooth darkness outside and the sunrise to be expected at 11:21, which means that the sun will lazily appear slightly above the horizon, and then solemnly descend back in four hours. We are getting close to winter solstice -- the nadir of the short days. I like how you can see sol (Sun) and sistere (stand still) in the word solstice; Winter Solstice - The Sun stands still in winter.
It is certainly not an easy time of year here but it makes you to understand more fully why people placed so much importance on a celebration of the winter solstice. Really, how else you can be sure that the failing light would come back unless you take matters in your own hands and coax it with an elaborate ceremony?
I was reading about ancient monuments that were built in alignment with the solstices. The most famous is
Stonehenge, the standing stone circle in England, that marks both winter and summer solstices. And then, there is Negwrange, a megalithic site in Ireland. It is estimated to be 5,000 years old, which is older than Egyptian pyramids. It was built to receive a beam of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn at winter solstice. There is Maeshowe on the Orkney Island, north of Scotland, which is also famous for its midwinter alignment. In the weeks leading up to the winter solstice the last rays of the setting sun shine through the entrance passage to pierce the darkness of the chambered cairn. And, then there is Chankillo ruins in Peru, which for the longest time puzzled the archaeologists with its purpose until it was suggested that at least part of the complex was a solar observatory.
Even more interesting, this book “
The Sun in the Church” indicates that many medieval Catholic churches doubled as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy in order to set the precise date for Easter celebration, so observatories were built into churches and cathedral. A small hole in the roof let in a ray of sunlight, which would trace a path or meridian line along the floor. The position of the meridian line at noon, including the maximum and minimums of the solstices, was carefully marked through the year.
I think we have to celebrate the winter solstice this year.

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