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5 strange things that’ve happened on the winter solstice

With the winter solstice association with death and rebirth – these historic events of December 21st take on new resonance.

The glorious winter solstice is near, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere at least. Arriving on Saturday, December 21, at 11:19 PM EST, the shortest day of the year marks the beginning of astronomical winter (for those in the Southern Hemisphere it’s the beginning of summer). The days have been getting shorter and shorter, but after the solstice, the daylight will slowly begin to stretch out again. In New York City, the 21st will deliver 9 hours, 16 minutes, and 10 seconds of daylight, by the time the summer solstice rolls around in June, we will be back up to 15 hours, 5 minutes, and 24 seconds of daylight. Not that we’re counting or anything.

The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still.” On this day, the sun’s path reaches its southernmost point. Losing its momentum while it begins its return northward, its path appears to stand still. This cycle of gradual diminishing and reversal is associated with dying and being born again in many cultures. As the Farmers’ Almanac notes, for example, in Druidic traditions, “the Winter Solstice is thought of as a time of death and rebirth when Nature’s powers and our own souls are renewed.” Adding that, the “birth of the New Sun is thought to revive the Earth’s aura in mystical ways, giving a new lease on life to spirits and souls of the dead.”

It has also hatched some very significant events in history. Now granted, you could probably randomly select any date and find events that somehow resonate. But for many of us, the winter solstice is pretty special … and it’s fascinating to see what historic events happened on this day in which the sun stands still. Here are some of them.

1620: The Mayflower anchors in Plymouth harbor

Carrying 102 passengers (plus crew) escaping religious persecution in England, the Mayflower first dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor on this auspicious date. She was followed by more ships, including the Fortune, Anne and Little James. Definitely some epic death and rebirth going on here, given the genocide of millions of Native people and the theft of Native lands, combined with the beginning of what would become the United States. It feels pretty poignant that the Mayflower landed on a day associated with beginnings and endings.

1898: Radium is discovered

Radium was discovered on this date by wife and husband chemist team Marie Sklodowska Curie and Pierre Curie, ushering in Marie’s theory of radioactivity and the Atomic Age. That's pretty significant. Radium is about one million times more active than uranium. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Her notebooks chronicling her discoveries are still so “hot” that they still cannot be safely handled today … and will likely remain so for another 1600 years.

1937: World's first full-length animated feature premiers

Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre, marking the release of the first full-length animated film. And things have never been the same. One of the interesting parts about this is that it marks the start of the Disneyfication, if you will, of darker things. Sure some Disney fairytales may have a few bleak moments, but the films in general are marked by their “happily ever after” gloss. The original versions of these tales told by the Brothers Grimm were not so cheerful. I like this description by Zoë Triska:

In the Brothers Grimm version, the evil queen stepmother asks a hunter to take Snow White into the forest and kill her (this also happens in the Disney movie). However, in the story, she asks him to also bring her back Snow White’s lungs and liver. He can’t kill Snow White, so brings back a boar’s lungs and liver instead. The queen eats the lungs and liver, believing them to be Snow White’s. Yuck. In the book, the queen tries twice (unsuccessfully) to kill Snow White. The third time, when the queen gives her the apple (just like in the movie), Snow White faints and can’t be revived. She is placed in a glass coffin. A prince comes and wants to take her away (even though she is still asleep, which is pretty weird). The dwarves hesitantly allow it, and while she is being carried, the carriers trip, causing the poisoned apple to become dislodged from Snow White’s throat. She and the prince, of course, get married. The evil queen is invited. As a punishment, she is forced to wear burning-hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead.

1968: Apollo 8 spacecraft is launched

The first mission to take humans to the moon and back, Apollo 8 paved the way for actually landing on the moon. Among its firsts: It was the first manned mission launched on the Saturn V; the first manned launch from NASA's new Moonport; and offered the first live TV coverage of the lunar surface.

Important to us TreeHuggers, it was also the first time that photos were taken of Earth as seen from deep space. The iconic “Earthrise” image was taken by Major William A. Anders, the lunar module pilot. The image gave us a new perspective of our home planet, and is credited by many for starting the environmental movement.

2012: The world doesn’t end

planet approaching earthA variable star accompanied by a light echo, erroneously said to be an approaching planet on a collision course with Earth. (NASA's Hubble Space Telescope)/Public Domain

According to some creative interpretations of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (also known as the Mayan Calendar), a lot of people were pretty certain that on December 21, 2012, the planet Nibiru (which NASA promises us does not exist) was going to hurtle into Earth and be the end of us all. Either that, or the Earth's rotation was going to start going in reverse – that would have been confusing! NASA also assures us that a magnetic reversal is very unlikely to happen in the next few millennia. There were other scenarios promising to unleash all kinds of fury – and/or resulting greatness – as well.

As Benjamin Anastas wrote in The New York Times, “To some, 2012 will bring the end of time; to others, it carries the promise of a new beginning…”

But in the end, it just brought another shortest day of the year, a sun standing still and starting its trek back to the longer days of summer. Which is actually pretty impressive all on its own.

With the winter solstice association with death and rebirth – these historic events of December 21st take on new resonance.