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Winter Solstice In Washington: When It Arrives And Things To Do

Patch logo Patch 12/17/2019 Lucas Combos
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The winter solstice — the darkest day of the year, but also the celestial holiday celebrated through the ages as the beginning of light — officially arrives in Washington at 8:19 p.m. Saturday. We’ll see eight hours and 25 minutes of daylight on the first day of winter.

In Western Washington, there are dozens of festive events planned to celebrate the end of the year's longest nights. Here are a few highlights:

Winter Solstice Walk

Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle

Saturday, Dec. 21

5 p.m. - 6 p.m.

Event Page (advance tickets required)

Winter Solstice Holiday Night Market

Magnuson Park Hangar 30, Seattle

Friday, Dec. 20 (4 p.m. - 10 p.m.)

Sat. Dec. 21 (12 p.m. - 9 p.m.)

Event Page

Make Music Winter Solstice Gathering

232 Front Street North, Issaquah

Saturday, Dec. 21

4 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Event Page

Winter Solstice Celebration

East Shore Unitarian Church, Bellevue

Saturday, Dec. 21

7 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.

Event Page

Winter Solstice Celebration & Potluck BreakfastThea's Park, Tacoma

Sunday, Dec. 22

7:30 a.m.

Event Page

For anyone stretching their winter solstice revelry into the evening hours, here’s a bonus: The Ursid meteor shower peaks overnight Saturday and Sunday. The Ursids are a minor meteor shower with only 10 to 20 shooting stars an hour, but a nearly moonless sky translates into excellent viewing conditions, weather permitting.

According to the National Weather Service, our extended period of wet weather is unlikely to taper off before later in the day Sunday, so the chances of catching a glipse of the Ursids appear low this time around.

Should there be a break in the clouds, the best time to watch for Ursids meteors, produced by debris dropped by the periodic comet 8P/Tuttle, is in the early hours Sunday. Ursids appear to radiate in the sky above the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) near Polaris, but shooting stars can appear anywhere in the sky.

The solstice isn’t something you see but rather something that occurs — though you may want to mark the 2019 solstice by taking a picture of your shadow at noon. Because the sun is at its lowest arc across the horizon, it will cast long shadows. Shadows at noontime on the day of the winter solstice will be the longest of the year.

The winter solstice occurs at the exact moment the North Pole tilts the farthest away from the sun. On Sunday, the days begin growing a wee bit longer every day until the summer solstice, after which the days start getting shorter again.

On the winter solstice, the sun seems to stand still directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, which is 23.5 degrees south of the equator. During the summer solstice, which occurs in June, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer.

The winter solstice, the oldest-known winter celebration, is derived from the Latin word “solstitium,” which means “sun standing still.” In ancient times, it was both spiritually and scientifically important and marked the changing of the seasons. The best place in the world to observe the winter solstice is at the prehistoric monument Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, believed to have been erected by ancient Celtic druids to line up the exact position of the sunset on the winter solstice.

The winter solstice may explain why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in December. The Bible isn’t specific about when Jesus was born, and some people believe Dec. 25 may have been selected by Pope Julius I as the date of Christ’s birth to replace the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festival called “Saturnalia” with a Christian holiday.

The late Harry Yeide, who taught religion at George Washington University for nearly 50 years and died in 2013, once told National Geographic that as the Christmas celebration moved West, “the date that had been used to celebrate the winter solstice became sort of available for conversion to the observance of Christmas.”

Several of the rituals associated with Christmas — dinner feasts, gift-giving and decorative wreaths, for example — are rooted in pagan winter solstice rituals.

It may surprise you that the earliest sunsets and latest sunrises don’t occur on the winter solstice. It seems counterintuitive, but as Earthsky.org explains it, the key is understanding solar noon, the time of day the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. In early December, true solar noon occurs 10 minutes earlier on the clock than it does at the solstice. When true noon occurs later on the solstice, so do the sunrise and sunset times.

“It’s this discrepancy between clock time and sun time that causes the Northern Hemisphere’s earliest sunset and the Southern Hemisphere’s earliest sunrise to precede the December solstice,” Earthsky.org says. “The discrepancy occurs primarily because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis. A secondary but another contributing factor to this discrepancy between clock noon and sun noon comes from the Earth’s elliptical — oblong — orbit around the sun.

“The Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle, and when we’re closest to the sun, our world moves fastest in orbit. Our closest point to the sun — or perihelion – comes in early January. So we are moving fastest in orbit around now, slightly faster than our average speed of about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) per second. The discrepancy between sun time and clock time is greater around the December solstice than the June solstice because we’re nearer the sun at this time of year.”

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