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Shedding Some Light on Solstice

December 22, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight.

In summer, quite the other way; I have to go to bed by day ...

--A Child's Garden of Verses

. . . and let us be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas.

It is , you know. Christmas Day. Today. You could look it up.

By no coincidence, it is also the Winter Solstice, official beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. (Summer, Down Under.) For the purist, winter began at 1:46:15 a.m. today.

In 1987 (which, in all probability, is 1989), Dec. 22 is what is popularly but erroneously called "the shortest day of the year." There is, of course, no such thing.

Long and Short of It

Darryl F. Zanuck was pulling our leg when he titled his epic "The Longest Day." Harry Belafonte, on the other hand, was right on: "Day," he declared definitively, "is a day-o."

Winter or summer, north or south, year in year out, a day lasts 23 hours 56 minutes and change--the time it takes for Earth to rotate on its axis.

The "shortest day" is simply the one with the least sunlight: 9 hours, 53 minutes today in Los Angeles. It is the day when the sun rises directly above the Tropic of Capricorn. As seen from the Earth, the sun will not go any farther south--a blessing for which we can thank the Chumash Indians, among others (see below). At 1:46:16, the sun began to head back toward Los Angeles, where it belongs.

Thus on Dec. 23, we will enjoy two minutes more sunlight. From now until June 22, 1988, the days (as opposed to the nights) will get progressively longer.

On March 22--the Vernal Equinox, the start of spring--the sun will be directly over the Equator. A splendid occasion, widely ignored. Call it International Equality Day: the day when everyone on God's Green Footstool--black or white, male or female, Republican, Democrat or godless Communist--shares precisely 12 hours of light, 12 of darkness.

On June 22, the sun will lave Los Angeles for 14 hours 26 minutes, five hours more than today. Unjust though it may seem, though, the sun is never directly above Los Angeles. An angle of 79 degrees is as high as it gets, in contrast to 32 1/2 degrees today. You like your sun straight up, move between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

So Near, Yet So Cold

At any rate, this is "the shortest day," consequently one of the coldest: something of an irony since, as Griffith Observatory astronomer John Mosley points out, we're about as close to the sun today as we're going to get all year.

Why isn't is warmer, then? Because of the tilt of the Earth vis-a-vis our mother star, explains Suzy Gurton, another Griffith astronomer: "The sun isn't beating straight down on us; it's only 32 1/2 degrees above the horizon at noon, so it's glancing off us, the rays diffused by the atmosphere."

In other words, it's not the proximity, it's the angle? "Right," Gurton says. "If we were just sitting on our axis like a planetary couch potato, if we were perpendicular to our orbit, we wouldn't have seasons. Boring."

(Being closer to the sun in winter, though, does have its advantages. In its elliptical orbit, Mosley explains, the Earth travels faster the closer it is to the sun, so seasons are uneven in length; Northern Hemisphere summer is 4 1/2 days longer than its winter. Eat your heart out, Sydney!)

Anyway, today is the Winter Solstice and Christmas Day as well, though as usual we'll be celebrating the latter a few days late.

Christmas marks the day of Christ's birth, as well it should. The problem is, no one is quite sure just when Jesus was born. Malcolm Cooper, a Griffith lecturer, is among many who peg the date as March or September of 2 BC. (Ergo, it is 1989, though few among us would willingly add two years to our ages, let alone miss the Olympics.)

The date of Christmas, then, is arbitrary, though the time of the Winter Solstice, from which Christmas sprang, is easily calculated.

The solstice has been celebrated for millennia, long before Christ. Ancient peoples, realizing that the sun was slipping away, getting lower in the sky, pulled out all the stops to arrest its descent: voodoo, ritual, sacrifices . . .

Stepping Out

Among them were the local Chumash, who, on what was then "Christmas Eve," danced clockwise about a bonfire, symbolizing the sun. At precisely midnight, the dancers reversed course, counterclockwise--in effect asking the sun to cut short its winter vacation and come back home. The ritual was performed annually, and while none of the ancients is around to ask why, one can imagine the answer: "Hey, it works , doesn't it?"

Solstice Celebration

The Druids, naturally, did their own thing (including something weird involving mistletoe). So did the Romans, who never passed up an excuse for a good old-fashioned orgy. The Romans called their solstice celebration "Saturnalia," and a good time was had by all--at least up until AD 325.

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