Christmas has come early for stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere, who will be treated to two major cosmic events this weekend.
Winter officially kicks off on calendars Saturday — a day sacred to many ancient cultures called winter solstice. But this year, the hallowed day will be followed by a dazzling display of shooting stars coming from the annual Ursids meteor shower, which peaks Sunday evening and lasts into the dawn of Monday. And astronomers say this year is going to be particularly active, with a rate potentially two to three times more than usual — up to 30 to 45 meteors per hour.
What is the winter solstice?
Winter solstice is the day in which the Earth’s axis has the Northern Hemisphere situated at its farthest away from the sun, making it the day of the year with the fewest hours of light. Because of its unique qualities, the day is celebrated by myriad cultures both ancient and modern.
When is the winter solstice and how long will it last?
The celestial event begins in the US at 11:19 p.m. Saturday and lasts through Sunday. This weekend, the two shortest days of the year, will experience less than nine and a half hours of daylight each, according to TimeAndDate.com. Each day forward will become gradually longer until the summer solstice on June 20 or 21, 2020.
Why is it called a solstice?
References to the winter solstice, also called midwinter or yule season, have been traced as far back as 1200, according to Dictionary.com. It’s derived from the Latin word “solstitium,” which combines “sol,” or “the sun,” and “sistere,” meaning “to make stand still.”
Are there winter solstice celebrations around the world?
Cultures and religions around the world have unique celebrations and rituals tied to this special day. For example, Encyclopaedia Britannica says the Hopi of northern Arizona typically perform purification rituals to make way for a period of reset and renewal for nature, and invite protective spirits called kachinas from the mountains.
This time also represents the birthday of sun god Mithra in Persian culture celebrated with a festival called Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda, by reveling with traditional foods and staying up all night to welcome the sun.
And the ancient Roman holiday Saturnalia, which many scholars believe influenced modern Christmas celebrations, honored the agricultural god Saturn, according to History.com. During that time, pagan Italians took time away from labor — even giving slaves time off — to decorate their homes with green foliage, such as wreaths, and to don colorful clothing, play games and gamble, dance, sing, socialize and exchange gifts.
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