A foray into the intersections of agronomy, astronomy, and spirituality…
Today is the first day of winter (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), and thus the day of shortest daylight. The winter solstice–as a turning point from darkness to renewed light–has long been imbued with spiritual significance. Chanukah is timed to it (on which more below), and clearly many of the Euro-American Christmas traditions stem from the pagan Yule festivals of the pre-Christian era. The setting of Christmas itself to December (in the fourth century) must have been tied to the Roman Saturnalia holiday at this time of year. Both Saturnalia and Yule were apparently marked by the festive use of evergreens to symbolize renewal (sound familiar?). The burning of Yule logs gave light and (along with the mead!) warmth.1
At 11:47 this morning was solar noon on the first day of winter. Thus even at the point of the day’s maximum sun, the higher-chill deciduous fruit trees in the southern hedgerow of the corralito, shown in the above photo, are mostly in the shade of the tall grapefruit trees (a few branches of which are just barely visible at the left). This dense planting of deciduous trees in winter shade is a “trick” to maximize the chill that they receive.
The new moon was yesterday, meaning last night marked the point of maximum darkness. Last night was the sixth night of Chanukah, the eight-night festival of lights that straddles the new moon closest to the winter solstice–one would not want the festival commemorating rededication, using lights at the darkest time of year (and thus ending one of the darkest times in Jewish history up to that point), to occur at the full moon, after all. A year in which the new moon and the winter solstice come so close to one another is thus a special time. The new moon appears to have last fallen on the same night as the solstice in 1995 and to have last fallen on the night before, as it did this year,2 in 1987. The next time that the new moon will occur on the longest night is 2014 (in other words, it’s a 19-year cycle3), and the next time it will come on the night before is 2025 .
And, while we are on the themes of the corralito and Chanukah, doesn’t the espaliered ‘Freyburg’ apple bear just a little bit of resemblance to a menorah?
1. The Weather Notebook, School of the Seasons, and Shambala are among various useful on-line overviews. A large bonfire as the shortest days come is also key to the ancient Zoroastrian festival of Sadeh.
2. Barely, as the solstice comes at 1622 here in the San Diego area, or about twenty minutes before sundown on 30 Kislev/21 December, while the new moon was at 0601 on 29 Kislev/20 December. I calculated this from the US Naval Observatory Phases of the Moon and Earth Seasons pages. The Earth Seasons page covers only 1992-2020, while the Phases of the Moon pages go from 1980 to 2035.
3. Why nineteen? Presumably because the leap month (Adar II) must be included seven times in nineteen years in order to keep the (lunar) months consistent with the (solar) seasons.