THE SAVAGE SCIENCE DESK


AN ASTRONOMICAL EVENT – SUN & MOON JOIN HANDS

By Helen Cunningham, Ph.D. 

The heavens have a special treat for us this year.   The Winter Solstice and the December full moon (called the “Wolf Moon” by early Native Americans) will happen at the same time!  Going back thousands of years, people in the Northern Hemisphere have created holidays — like Christmas and Hanukkah — that celebrate the wonders of LIGHT at this time of year.  Why?  Well probably because there’s so little of it!  The Winter Solstice is the shortest and darkest day of the year.   But this year the moon will join hands with the sun, and shed extra light upon us. 

The Winter Solstice is this Friday, December 21.  The Wolf Moon peaks on Saturday, December 22.  It is rare for the events to occur so closely together in time.   It has happened only 10 times since 1793.  The last time it happened was in 2010, and the next time will be 2029.   So be sure to enjoy it!

CYCLES OF THE SUN – WINTER & SUMMER SOLSTICES 

When the Northern hemisphere points away from the sun, days get shorter and nights get longer.   If you live in Chicago IL you’ll get 9 hours of daylight and 15 hours of darkness.  If you live in Barrow Alaska, the northernmost city of the U.S., you’ll have 0 hours of daylight and 24 hours of darkness.   In fact you won’t see the sun for 65 days:  November 19 to January 20! 

The flip side of the Winter Solstice is the Summer Solstice, the LONGEST day of the year.  In Barrow Alaska you get 24 hours of daylight from May 10 to July 30!  

Did you know that the biggest vegetables known to mankind are grown in Alaska during those long summer days?  Veggies love sunlight and they show their appreciation by growing to gargantuan sizes.  The 2012 winner of the “Giant Cabbage Weigh Off” tipped the scales at a husky 138 pounds.  That’s a lot of kim chi!

TRACKING ASTRONOMICAL EVENTS 

The cabbages just go to show that the amount of sunlight you can expect at a given time of the year matters a lot.   Back in the early days, humans were desperately dependent upon sunlight for the success of food crops, and they recorded their knowledge of its comings & goings to help them survive.   Astronomical events were also used to guide activities such as the mating of animals and the monitoring of winter reserves of food.  Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this.  Evidence is seen at neolithic sites like Stonehenge, where the positioning of the giant sentinel stones captures perfectly the setting sun on the night of the Winter Solstice.  

Tracking the progress of winter was especially important because starvation was common.   Solstice festivals were the last fun anyone was going to have before deep winter began, so people made the most of it.   Animals were slaughtered so they wouldn’t have to be fed over the winter, and wine and beer were ready for drinking at this time.  The Winter solstice also took on symbolic meaning to the ancient people, representing the “darkest hour” after which they knew — or hoped — the sun would return and usher in a rebirth of all things.   

It’s not just the ancients who had these thoughts.   Early American settlers did as well.   Parts of the U.S. are very dark and very cold in the winter and, as we all know from reading “Stop Mass Hysteria”, the late 1600s and early 1700s were harsh times for the people living here.  Like their predecessors at Stonehenge,  they were obsessed with the cycles of the sun and the moon.  Their response, in part, was to rely on a little book called a “Farmer’s Almanac” or simply “Almanac”.   

THE ALMANAC

The word “almanac” is believed to be of Arabic descent and means a timetable of the skies or “calendar of the heavens.”   Their history goes back at least to the second century AD, when Greeks began recording observations in organized form. The first printed almanac dates to 1457 (printed by Gutenberg). They continued to be popular throughout Europe and America well into the 19th century, and you can still find them online.   

The main purpose of an Almanac was to provide precise data about astronomical events such as full moons, solstices, sunrises, sunsets, and eclipses.  They also recorded heights of local ocean tides, distances between important cities, and so on.  And over time they grew to be even more than that.   They made weather predictions, they offered poetry & gems of wisdom, and they provided guidance on planting, harvesting, and medical conditions.   Also (in Europe especially) they became a major source of astrological information including many strange & wondrous things such as the ZODIAC MAN.   The zodiac man mapped the signs of the zodiac onto the human form, with Aries at the top of the head, and Pisces at the feet (sorry Pisceans).  Some almanacs ventured into social, political, and religious commentary.  

In America, there were hundreds of different almanacs, focussed on different locales and offering different specialties such as history, games, or puzzles.  Benjamin Franklin, founding father and the source of a famous quote (“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”) that concludes “Stop Mass Hysteria”, published an almanac called “Poor Richard’s Almanac”.  Franklin’s almanac was especially popular for its pithy sayings such as:  

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” 

“There cannot be good living where there is not good drinking.” 

“A friend in need is a friend indeed!” 

“Fish and Visitors stink in 3 days.” 

CYCLES OF THE MOON

Much has been written about the moon.  What can we add?   The moon is considered a symbol of femininity as a counterpoint to the sun’s masculinity.  It is associated with romantic love and, unfortunately for women, it is also associated with madness (e.g., “lunatic”).  The moon’s gravity causes the ocean tides to rise and fall, and may cause wolves to howl in the night.  Some believe that more crime occurs on full moon nights, but a study entitled “The Moon was Full and Nothing Happened” examined more than 100 studies of alleged lunar effects and found no significant connection between phases of the moon and bad things happening.  
For us moderns, the full moon is mostly what we want it to be.  If we focus on its beauty, we will appreciate the extra light that it shines on our holiday celebrations.  If we focus on its cycles, we may feel an energy peak or a special moment for reflection & meditation.  Adding its cycle to the yearly cycle of the sun, we can hope to ring in an extra happy New Year … an auspicious time for new beginnings! 

FULL MOON WINTER SOLSTICE
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full_moon
https://earthsky.org/?p=294453

ALMANACS
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_almanacs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poor_Richard%27s_Almanack
https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/almanac/pdf/sevenbarks1856.pdf

More Features from Helen Cunningham, Ph.D. 

WE ARE ALL EARTHLINGS – THE INTELLIGENCE OF ANIMALS

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