December 21: Winter and Summer Solstices

December 21st marks the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. This astronomical event represents the time of the year when the path traveled by the sun is the farthest away from the northern part of the globe. Because the sun is traveling the shortest path through the sky, this is the day with the longest night in the year.

The figure below shows the earth’s orbit around the sun. On the right side, we can see that the earth’s inclination during the winter solstice causes the sun rays to shift southward, being directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn. After the winter solstice, the sunlight starts to increase again.

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Winter solstice, 2017

During this time of the year, we have cold, snow, hot beverages, family gatherings, holiday decorations… However, we can see by the figure above that while the sun rays are the farthest away from the northern hemisphere, they are the closest to the southern hemisphere. Our winter solstice is the summer solstice in the southern part of our planet. So how different is this time of the year south of the Equator?

 

Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere

Having lived just a few hundred miles south of the Tropic of Capricorn in Brazil, I can say that it is indeed very different. The first major difference is that our seasons are inverted. This means that right now, it is summer in Brazil.  Also, the academic year runs alongside the calendar year. It begins in January, February, or March, there is a short break in June or

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A sand snowman. (Brawner, 2010) 

 July, and it ends in November or December. While we have a holiday break here in December, children are having their summer vacation in Brazil. Because most people are on vacation, families in Brazil are now traveling with their families to the beaches, going to resorts, or cooling down in the pool. The closest they ever get to a snowman, besides decorative ones, is if they build a sandman.

 

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Example of conifer trees.  (Suominen, 2014)

We do have winters! Our winter lasts from June until August. But because Brazil is such a large country, it is comprised of extraordinarily different microclimates. In the south, where I used to live, winters are cool, but there is no snow – at most frost during the coldest winter days. Also, the trees are always green, even in the winter. Yet, we borrowed winter traditions from the north. The most notable one is the use of fake conifer trees, such as the ones shown on the right. They are decorated with lights, snowy ornaments, and pine cones. Interestingly, this type of tree does not exist in Brazil. Besides, the holiday season in that country takes place during the peak of the summer months, so it is somewhat curious that snow and unfamiliar trees are representative of that season.

Conifer trees are dominant in cold climates because of their ability to adapt to the winter, but they also exist in different  regions. In Brazil, we have our own kind of conifer, a pine tree called Araucária. It is also known as Paraná pine, named after its native state. The photograph below was taken circa 1880 by Marc Ferrez, a Brazilian artist. The trees depicted in this picture can grow up to 100 ft., and bear their branches only at the top, showing a naked trunk.

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Araucaria Angustifolia, a native Brazilian conifer tree. (Ferrez, Marc, c. 1880)

 

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Pinhão (Araucaria pine nuts), a typical southern dish in Brazil (SESCSP, 2016)

These lovely trees produce a type of pine nut called pinhão. When ripe, they are harvested, boiled with a little bit of salt, and are enjoyed warm, usually during the winter festivities of June and July. Unfortunately, Araucárias are not the type of tree usually associated with the holiday season in Brazil.

 

 

The holidays in Brazil are a mix of tropical summer vacation and odd snowy decorations. On December 21st, while we have the shortest of the year, Brazil is having the longest day of the year.

And where are you from? Is there anything different from this time of the year in North America?

 


 

Do you want to learn more about the winter and summer solstices? Check the following e-book:

  • Heinberg, R. (2014). Celebrate the solstice : Honoring the earth’s seasonal rhythms through festival and ceremony. Available as e-book here.

If you are curious about Brazil, we have many books and e-books available in our catalog.


Sources used in this post:

 

Contributed by Juliana Magro, Information Literacy and Instructional Librarian @ Midtown

 

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