• solstice
    The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is free of snow for only two months—around the summer solstice.

    Photograph by Thomas W. Melham

    Getting Hitched
    The Intihuatana Stone is an ancient sundial located in Machu Picchu, Peru, part of the Incan Empire. Incans lived in Machu Picchu until the 1500s and 1600s.

    Incan worshippers might have believed the sun was tethered to the Intihuatana Stone as if on a leash, resulting in the tall stone's nickname: the Hitching Post of the Sun. The stone was arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. At noon during the equinoxes (where day and night are of equal length), the Intihuatana Stone casts no shadow.

    Solstices now mark the beginning of summer and winter. Because someancient Europeancultures only recognized these twoseasons (there was no autumn or spring), the solstices occurred in the middle of the season. Solstices are known asmidsummer andmidwinter for this reason.

    The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, meaning it has the most hours of sunlight. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and has the fewest hours of daylight.

    Solstices happen due to the way the Earth circles, or orbits, the sun. The Earth is tilted on its axis, not straight up-and-down. When the Earth orbits the sun, one half of the Earth is tilted toward the sun, while the other half is tilted away from the sun.. The Earths tilt changes throughout the year, causing the latitude, or location, where the sun appears directly overhead at noon to change also.

    Around June 22, the Earths Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. The suns vertical rays strike the Tropic of Cancer, 23.5 degrees north of the Equator. The June solstice is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (the summer solstice) and the shortest day of the year in the Southern Hemisphere (the winter solstice.)

    The opposite occurs on December 22, when the Earths Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. The suns vertical rays strike the Tropic of Capricorn, 23.5 degrees south of the Equator. The December solstice is the shortest day of the year (winter solstice) in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year (summer solstice) in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Since ancient times, many cultures have marked the solstices as the longest and shortest days of the year.

    Ancient European tribes celebrated midsummer with feasts and bonfires. Many of these traditions still survive in Europe and countries that have large populations of European (especially Scandinavian) heritage, such as Canada and the United States. In 1595, the English writer William Shakespeare wrote a comic play called A Midsummer Nights Dream. The play tells the story of two sets of couples enchanted by a magical forest during the summer solstice. Brazil celebrates midsummer with St. John festivals. (Many Christian countries associate midsummer with the birthday of St. John the Baptist. John is a saint, or holy man, to Christians.) Brazils St. John celebrations are among the largest outdoor parties in the world.

    Followers of ancient traditions also honor the winter solstice. Monuments to this event can be seen at Stonehenge, in the United Kingdom, and the so-called Intihuatana Stone, or Hitching Post of the Sun at the Incan ruin of Machu Picchu in Peru. At these sites, people gathered to celebrate and pray for their survival through the winter. Religious holidays surrounded midwinter as well. In the Roman Empire, the midwinter festival (Saturnalia) was celebrated the week of December 25. Early Christians adopted the timing of the holiday for one of their most important holidays, Christmas. Pagans and neopagans, followers of early European religious traditions, still celebrate the winter solstice as a holiday called Yule.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    associate Verb

    to connect.

    axis Noun

    an invisible line around which an object spins.

    Encyclopedic Entry: axis
    bonfire Noun

    large outdoor fire.

    celebrate Verb

    to observe or mark an important event with public and private ceremonies or festivities.

    Christian Noun

    people and culture focused on the teachings of Jesus and his followers.

    Christmas Noun

    Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    Earth Noun

    our planet, the third from the Sun. The Earth is the only place in the known universe that supports life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Earth
    Equator Noun

    imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.

    Encyclopedic Entry: equator
    feast Verb

    to eat large amounts of food, usually to celebrate or honor something.

    forest Noun

    ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

    heritage Noun

    cultural or family background.

    holiday Noun

    period of celebration or honor.

    Inca Noun

    people and culture native to the Andes Mountains and Pacific coast of South America.

    latitude Noun

    distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.

    Encyclopedic Entry: latitude
    magic Noun

    control of natural or spiritual forces.

    midsummer Noun

    period around the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

    midwinter Noun

    (Dec. 22 in the Northern Hemisphere, June 22 in the Southern Hemisphere) winter solstice.

    monument Noun

    large structure representing an event, idea, or person.

    Northern Hemisphere Noun

    half of the Earth between the North Pole and the Equator.

    orbit Verb

    to move in a circular pattern around a more massive object.

    Encyclopedic Entry: orbit
    pagan Adjective

    following the religious traditions of ancient Europe, including polytheism and nature worship.

    Roman Empire Noun

    (27 BCE-476 CE) period in the history of ancient Rome when the state was ruled by an emperor.

    saint Noun

    holy person in Christian religions.

    Saturnalia Noun

    Roman festival around the winter solstice.

    Scandinavia Noun

    region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

    season Noun

    period of the year distinguished by special climatic conditions.

    Encyclopedic Entry: season
    solstice Noun

    astronomical event that occurs twice a year, when the sun appears directly overhead to observers at the Tropic of Cancer or the Tropic of Capricorn.

    Encyclopedic Entry: solstice
    Southern Hemisphere Noun

    half of the Earth between the South Pole and the Equator.

    St. John the Baptist Noun

    Christian holy man who baptized Jesus of Nazareth.

    Stonehenge Noun

    prehistoric monument in Salisbury Plain, England.

    summer solstice Noun

    day of the year with the most hours of sunlight, June 20 or 21 in the Northern Hemisphere and December 21 or 22 in the Southern Hemisphere.

    survival Noun

    ability to live.

    tradition Noun

    beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.

    tribe Noun

    community made of one or several family groups sharing a common culture.

    Tropic of Cancer Noun

    line of latitude 23.5 degrees north of the Equator.

    Tropic of Capricorn Noun

    line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of the Equator.

    vertical Noun

    up-down direction, or at a right angle to Earth and the horizon.

    William Shakespeare Noun

    (1564-1616) English writer.

    winter solstice Noun

    (December 22 in the Northern Hemisphere, June 22 in the Southern Hemisphere) longest night of the year and the beginning of winter.

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