The Shortest Day

December 22, 2009

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

— from “The Shortest Day,” Susan Cooper

Yesterday marked the winter solstice, the official start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as its shortest day and longest night. Here at Orange Pond, New Hampshire, where our latitude lies between 43 and 44 degrees, the day lasted a few minutes less than nine hours, the night more than fifteen.

Though the Earth as a whole is closer to the Sun during northern winters, the axial tilt of the planet tips the northern hemisphere away from the sun. On the winter solstice, that tilt is at its maximum of 23 degrees and 26 minutes. For us here in the north, that puts the sun at its lowest angle above the horizon.

Not entirely coincidentally, we heard the complete version of Susan Cooper’s poem, “The Shortest Day,” on Sunday night in Cambridge. A month ago, thinking of celebrations of the season, we’d bought tickets to the Christmas Revels for the final night before the solstice. So even though the weekend brought a winter travel advisory and a storm dumped two feet of snow in North Carolina, canceled thousands of holiday flights up and down the Eastern seaboard, and snarled traffic in Boston, we drove down Interstate 93 Sunday afternoon in stately procession behind snow-plow convoys. We arrived in Cambridge in time to join a smaller stream of foot traffic heading across Harvard Yard to the Victorian eminence of Sanders Theater. The snow cloaked the ancient shade trees and whitened the lawns, muffling the sounds of the city just outside the gates.

We carried the quiet expectation with us into the theater, slid into high-backed benches in the balcony, below vaulted ceilings of polished walnut, and watched a show that explored our country’s variegated folk traditions. Those traditions — Shaker, Appalachian, Native American — drew on more ancient winter practices that helped human communities hold together against cold, dark, and famine, and helped them, too, hope for warmth, light, and feast. Virgil squirmed until the sword dance, after which he sat up and joined in to sing of peace and goodwill.

Walking back through the yard toward Harvard Square and its lights and bustle, Ursula and Virgil kicked up powder and pummeled us with snowballs. The winter solstice may mark the year’s shortest day, but it also gives rise to celebrations of warmth and light of all kinds.


Learn more

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a kid-friendly description of the winter solstice.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.