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A full moon and meteor shower make winter solstice 2018 special

For the past six months, the days have grown shorter and the nights have grown longer in the Northern Hemisphere, in preparation for the shortest day of the year — December 21. Conversely, in the Southern Hemisphere, people will experience the longest day of the year.

To be precise, the exact time of the 2018 winter solstice will be 22:23 Universal Time. That would be 5:23 p.m. ET for parts of Canada, the United States, and Latin America, according to CNN meteorologists.

This event has gone on for time untold. In cultures the world over, the promise of longer days has provided a reason to celebrate for millennia, according to Penn State scholars. And the celebrations have carried in many modern-day cultural and religious practices.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice.
Mark Grant (CC BY 2.5)

To many archaeologists and anthropologists, both the ancient and contemporary observance of the winter solstice tells them a lot about humanity and its connection to nature — specifically as a life-giving force.

“To me, these are the phenomena that I as an archaeologist find the most interesting,” says Megan Kassabaum of the Penn Museum. “If something has persisted for close to 10 thousand years now, that seems to be getting at something almost innate, something universal that we recognize and share.”

2018 winter solstice full moon is special
Earth could be called a lucky planet. This is because it is tilted on its rotational axis, allowing us to experience seasonal changes. As the Earth moves around the sun, each hemisphere experiences winter when it is tilted away from the sun and summer when it is tilted toward the sun.

In 2017  the Cold Moon fell on December 3 and was at at its brightest at 4:47 pm E.T.

In 2017, the Cold Moon fell on December 3 and was at at its brightest at 4:47 pm E.T.
Ajith Kumar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Some scientists believe this is due to the Earth being subject to violent collisions billions of years ago when the solar system was being formed. But be prepared for some special events this year, including the last full moon of the year.

For those who like to be specific, the full moon of the winter solstice will occur at exactly 17:49 Universal Time (that’s 12:49 p.m. ET) on Saturday, December 22, EarthSky says. But not to worry. If the sky is nice and clear on Friday night, the moon will appear full to you. You might be able to read a newspaper by the light of the moon.

What makes this full moon so special, you may ask? A full moon so close to the winter solstice won’t be seen again until 2029. Additionally, depending on where you might live and the cultural traditions you may practice, the full moon is also called the Cold Moon, Cold Full Moon, Long Night Moon (by some Native American tribes) or the Moon Before Yule (from the Anglo-Saxon lunar calendar).

File photo: Meteor shower as seen in Joshua Tree National Park 2013

File photo: Meteor shower as seen in Joshua Tree National Park 2013
Channone Arif (CC BY 2.0)

The annual Ursids meteor shower
The annual Ursids meteor shower is expected to peak a day or two after the solstice. You might be able to see up to 10 “shooting stars” per hour depending on your location. According to the website In the Sky, these annual meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through streams of debris left behind by comets and asteroids.

The moon will be 15 days old at the time of peak activity, and being so close to full moon will severely limit the observations that will be possible. So it is best to observe the meteor showers by not looking directly at the radiant part of the sky itself, but at any dark patch of sky which is around 30–40° away from it.

The amount of daylight was important to ancient cultures
Scholars have been studying ancient cultures and their relationship to astronomical events and signs. As civilization began to take roots in agriculture, people began to depend on the amount of daylight available for their crops. Ancient societies even marked important astrological events by erecting monuments, with the Neolithic sites of Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland being two of the most well-preserved.

The Aztecs  Sun Stone (Piedra del Sol)  inappropriately called the  Aztec calendar   National Museum...

The Aztecs’ Sun Stone (Piedra del Sol), inappropriately called the “Aztec calendar”, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City..

“Throughout the latter part of the Neolithic period, from 5000 to 3000 B.C.E., people were consistently building monuments that reflected knowledge of the sun and the stars, and the solstice would have been a really important part of that,” Kassabaum says.

“That makes a lot of sense: If you’re going to be planting and harvesting and then planting again and harvesting again, you really need to be able to understand and predict these seasonal changes.”

But early Europeans weren’t the only cultural groups that knew quite a bit about the seasons and astronomical events. In North and South America, Indigenous people marked important days such as the solstices, equinoxes, and even eclipses and lunar standstills.

The Blackfeet always faced their tipis toward the rising sun  including on winter solstice.

The Blackfeet always faced their tipis toward the rising sun, including on winter solstice.
Beinecke Library (CC BY 2.0)

“Sites like Newgrange and the Mayan pyramids tend to get higher billing because they are there on the landscape today,” Kassabaum says. “But we have a lot of evidence for wood and earthen [astronomy-related] architecture in the U.S. as well, it’s just now eroded or outright decomposed.”

In the United States, the Zuni hold a multi-day celebration, known as the Shalako festival. The days for the celebration are selected by the religious leaders. While their ceremonies were very private, the Blackfeet tribe in Montana marked the winter solstice and the “return” of the sun or “Naatosi” on its annual journey by facing their tipis – or portable conical tents – east toward the rising sun.

In Cahokia, near the Mississippi River in what is now Illinois across from St. Louis, the Indigenous people erected numerous temple pyramids or mounds, similar to the structures built by the Aztecs in Mexico. The evidence suggests that the people of Cahokia venerated the sun as a deity. Scholars believe that ancient indigenous societies observed the solar system carefully and wove that knowledge into their architecture.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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