The year 2018 is nearly over. The days have gotten shorter and shorter until the winter solstice on Dec. 21. The solstice occurred at the exact time the North Pole was aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis. This was also the time when the sun was directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. The solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.
Essentially, the earth leans away from the sun in the winter and the sunlight is scattered across the atmosphere. Daylight hours are defined as the time between sunrise and sunset. Near the equator, day light is very close to 12 hours a day all year long. Consider the northern hemisphere, understanding that the southern hemisphere is basically a mirror opposite, where daylight lessens during the winter as the latitude increases. In the middle latitudes such as the United States, daylight hours range from a low in the winter of about nine hours to around 15 hours during the summer. An extreme example above the arctic circle is Barrow, Alaska, where never rises about one month on each side of the winter solstice, giving that location nearly two months of total darkness.
The winter solstice varies from year to year, with Dec. 21 or 22 being the most common dates but it can fall on Dec. 20 or 23 as well. The sun has to return to the same spot relative to Earth which is based on a tropical year, not a calendar year. For the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice is the shortest day, or the longest night, of the year. As the Earth continues to revolve around the sun, the days will begin to get a little longer every day until the summer solstice in June. The number of hours of daylight changes throughout the year, exactly how it much depends on latitude, because of the Earth’s tilted axis. On average the amount of sunlight changes about two minutes per day.
Days also get shorter in metaphorical way around the end of a calendar year when people reflect on the “old” year ending and plan for the “new” year starting. Such practices may have begun with the Babylonians about 4,000 years ago but it was Julius Caesar establishing a calendar year beginning with the month of January, named for the ancient Roman god Janus, who was a two-faced deity whose spirit was thought to inhabit arches and doorways that was significant. This first month of the year January was special to the Romans who believed that the god Janus symbolically looked back into the last year and ahead to the future. They offered sacrifices and made promise of good behavior for the upcoming year.
Early Christians also used the first day of a new year as a time to consider past mistakes and promise to improve in the future. This tradition may have led to various religious services such as the Covenant Renewal Service created by the Methodist founder John Wesley in 1740. The services also known as “watch night” services were most commonly held on New Year’s Eve. Modern resolutions are a secular tradition focused on self-improvement. The desire to start fresh and make a list of pledges to keep in the New Year has been documented as early as 1671. Whether Frank Sinatra was referring to the shortened days from the Earth’s tilt and revolution or making a New Year’s resolution, the days do “dwindle down to a precious few.” So in closing, consider these words of the famous fighter Muhammad Ali, “Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
*Rhonda Cummins is the Calhoun County Extension Agent for Coastal and Marine Resources with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service and the Texas Sea Grant College Program.