Image credit: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia
Once again, it's the Winter Solstice, or, as folks with a more worldly view might refer to it:
The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north (Arctic Polar Circle) are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south (Antarctic Polar Circle) receive 24 hours of daylight.
December solstice 2012: 21 Dec 11:12 (UTC)
Which is really early in the morning on the West Coast. Of course, as most of you undoubtedly know, this is another day when the world was supposed to end:
A new Reuters survey found that one in 10 people believe the end of the world will occur in 2012, and one in seven believe the world will end in their lifetimes.
"Perhaps it is because of the media attention coming from one interpretation of the Mayan prophecy that states the world ‘ends’ in our calendar year 2012,” Keren Gottfried, research manager at Ipsos Global Public Affairs, told Reuters.
End Of The World 2012: Mayan Calendar Doomsday Prediction Held By 1 In 10
Maybe if you're reading this by now, that one person in ten will have figured out that when a civilization that basically ended five centuries ago didn't bother to update its calendar, that this doesn't mean the world will end.
Fat chance, right?
Anyway, for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere and yet aren't butt stupid, this day is a day of renewal. The days will start to get longer soon, and we can start thinking about springtime. Just about all the major religions have holidays this time of year, and that's why.
Over at Space.com, Joe Rao explains why the ancients were so interested in the winter solstice:
The ancient skywatchers had no understanding of the sun's migration; they thought this celestial machinery might break down someday, and the sun would continue southward, never to return. As such, the lowering of the sun was cause for fear and wonder.
When the ancients saw the sun stop and slowly climb to a higher midday location, people rejoiced; here was a promise that spring would return. Most cultures had winter solstice celebrations and some adapted it to other events. In Persia, the solstice marked the birthday of Mithra, the Sun King.
Dec. 21: The Winter Solstice Explained
Yep, Sun sticks around - good. Sun goes away - bad. Pretty smart, those ancients. Wish they could have made their calendars last longer, though. They would at least have spared us one more end of the world scenario.
So, assuming we survived the apocalypse, Happy Solstice!
Afterword: This article was written on Dec. 17. If the world ends before it appears at 4:00 AM PST (12:00 GMT), boy, will I feel silly.
UPDATE: Be sure to check out today's APOD. It's another photo of that Mayan pyramid, and it's gorgeous.