Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and the astronomical event that has more rituals and ceremonies associated with it than any other. It is no coincidence that there are numerous holidays around the solstice, for the timing of these holidays is rooted in ancient religions. There is archaeological evidence that the solstice has been important to human cultures for at least 30,000 years; many ancient stone structures like Stonehenge are designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice, and many ancient peoples held festivals of light to bring about the return of summer’s longer days.

The term solstice means “sun stands still.” It is when the sun stays closer to the horizon than at any other time of the year and appears to rise and set in the same place for several days in a row. But while the sun stands still and tonight is long, stars may appear to streak through the sky as the Earth passes through a stream of comet dust — the yearly Ursid meteor shower — which may produce a pleasing shower of shooting stars for northern viewers near the end of the night.

Stolen from The Writer’s Almanac, 12/22/11.

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