Winter Solstice, Tilt of the Earth & Ancient Myths
On December 21 the winter solstice will signal the shortest day and longest night of the year for people in the Northern Hemisphere.
The sun will be as far south as it goes on the 21st as it reaches the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5 degrees below equator). Then, on Dec 22, the sun will start returning north toward the Tropic of Cancer where it will arrive around June 21, next year.
What causes the solstices? The answer is the tilt of the earth on its axis of rotation relative to the sun, around which the earth circles. For half the year (March 20-September 22) the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun; the other half of the year, the Southern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun. The tilt of the earth (23 degrees) is the cause of seasons during the year as the earth travels once around the sun.
What are the "equinoxes" that occur in March and September? They are the two days a year the sun is directly over the equator as the tilt of the earth relative to the sun shifts from north to south, or vice versa.
Landscaper, David Beaulieu, points out on About.com that "these two solstices (winter and summer) are junctures of the year's progress and they figure prominently in the magic and mythologies of many ancient peoples throughout history. In Celtic mythology, for example, both of the solstices are strongly linked to holly trees. Sprigs from Christmas holly trees were worn in the hair during the mistletoe ritual performed by the priests of the Celts, the Druids, at the summer festival. The pointy leaves of holly trees were thought to afford magical protection for homes against witches and lightning strikes.
"Holly tree sprigs were also brought into their dwellings during the cold-weather months in the belief that they afforded shelter to the fairies, the tiny spirits of the forest."
Beaulieu continues: "In Celtic mythology the "Oak King" and the "Holly King" were twins, pitted against each other in a never-ending duel for supremacy. Oak trees, sacred to the Celts, are deciduous, while the English, Christmas holly trees native to their lands are evergreen. As cold weather approached, the Celts marveled at how the evergreen Christmas holly trees, hidden amongst the leafy oaks the rest of the year, now stood out prominently on otherwise barren landscape. The Holly King had won out because the antics of his twin brother had caused all the oaks to shed their leaves. So the oaks stood naked in defeat.
"But on the winter solstice in December, the Oak King always rallies--albeit imperceptibly--and he begins to re-establish his supremacy. The Oak King's supremacy won't reach its zenith until June, when the oaks will be in full leaf again. At that point, the Holly King will start to rally, laying the foundation in the summer heat for his reign at the next winter solstice.
Ironically, whenever either king reaches the height of his dominance, at that very time he is doomed to be supplanted.
Sun Starts North
This is why daylight-cravers have reason to be of good cheer when winter solstice approaches. After December 21, at the darkest hour, the sun will start "heading back"...to Lake Tahoe and Reno.