Welcome The Winter Solstice

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Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the shortest daylight period and longest night of the year.

At 12:11 p.m. EST on December 21, the sun appears directly overhead along the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. With the Earth’s north pole at its maximum tilt from the sun, locations north of the equator see the sun follow its lowest and shortest arc across the southern sky. For the next six months, the days again grow longer as the sun spends more time above the horizon.

solstice

The December solstice has influenced the lives of many people over the centuries, particularly through art, literature, mythology and religion. 

In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice occurs during the coldest season of the year. Although winter was regarded as the season of dormancy, darkness and cold, the coming of lighter days after the winter solstice brought on a more festive mood. To many people, this return of the light was a reason to celebrate that nature’s cycle was continuing.

In modern times Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas, which falls on December 25. However, it is believed that this date was chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.

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Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may have derived from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. Yule is also known as Alban Arthan and was one of the “Lesser Sabbats” of the Wiccan year in a time when ancient believers celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and days with more light. This took place annually around the time of the December solstice and lasted for 12 days. The Lesser Sabbats fall on the solstices and equinoxes.

The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor.

yule log

A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log. In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine.

French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The present-day custom of lighting a Yule log at Christmas is believed to have originated in the bonfires associated with the feast of Juul.

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In Ancient Rome the winter (December) solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. It was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.

It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.

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In Poland the ancient December solstice observance prior to Christianity involved people showing forgiveness and sharing food. It was a tradition that can still be seen in what is known as Gody. In the northwestern corner of Pakistan, a festival called Chaomos, takes place among the Kalasha or Kalash Kafir people. It lasts for at least seven days, including the day of the December solstice. It involves ritual baths as part of a purification process, as well as singing and chanting, a torchlight procession, dancing, bonfires and festive eating.

Many Christians celebrate St Thomas’ Day in honor of St Thomas the Apostle on December 21. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the polo voladore, or “flying pole dance”. Three men climb on top of a 50-foot pole. As one of them beats a drum and plays a flute, the other two men wind a rope attached to the pole around one foot and jump. If they land on their feet, it is believed that the sun god will be pleased and that the days will start getting longer. Some churches celebrate St Thomas’ Day on other days in the year.

The ancient Incas celebrated a special festival to honor the sun god at the time of the December solstice. In the 16th century ceremonies were banned by the Roman Catholics in their bid to convert the Inca people to Christianity. A local group of Quecia Indians in Cusco, Peru, revived the festival in the 1950s. It is now a major festival that begins in Cusco and proceeds to an ancient amphitheater a few miles away.

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Shine On Harvest Moon

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With the autumnal equinox set to fall on Sept. 22, the 2013 Harvest Moon will be in full bloom tonight.

The term “Harvest Moon” or “Corn Moon,” is used to describe the full moon that occurs closest to fall’s equinox. For skywatchers in North America, the full moon is expected to rise shortly after sunset (depending on your location) on Sept. 18 and will peak at 7:13 a.m. EDT the next morning.

The Harvest Moon will be especially visible during the overnight hours, even though it won’t actually be “full” until Thursday morning.

As EarthSky explains:

No matter where you are on Earth, this full moon – and every full moon – ascends over your eastern horizon around the time of sunset. It’s always highest in the sky in the middle of the night, when the sun is below your feet. That’s because a full moon is opposite the sun. Being opposite the sun, the moon is showing us its fully lighted hemisphere, or “day” side. That’s what makes the moon look full.

However, the almost full Harvest Moon should also be visible for North American viewers on Thursday night, when the moon will turn full for observers in Asia.

The annual celestial sight was dubbed the “Harvest Moon” because its light allowed farmers in the Northern Hemisphere to harvest their crops for several hours more into the night, Farmers’ Almanac notes.

The Summer Solstice

Keeping bees makes one more aware of the Wheel of the Year.

bee summer solstice

The 2013 Summer Solstice occurs at 1:04 am EDT on Friday, June 21st.  It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

A solstice is an astronomical event that occurs twice each year as the Sun reaches its highest or lowest point relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere.

The Summer Solstice is also referred to as Midsummer’s Eve. It’s an important holiday in much of the Northern Hemisphere, and was very important to many ancient cultures.

While the cultural symbols associated with the Summer Solstice vary between different cultures, the Solstice has always been a significant day in the Wheel of the Year.

The general themes associated with the Solstice are fertility, fire, celebration, healing, and magic. Many of the celebrations were accompanied by large bonfires (especially on shorelines), feasting, singing, dancing, and the gathering of medicinal/magic plants.

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The Solstice is thought to be the time “when the forces of nature are at their most powerful, and the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds are thinnest.” The term used in modern times — solstice — is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).

If you stand inside the Stonehenge monument on the day of the northern Summer Solstice, facing northeast through the entrance towards a rough hewn stone outside the circle – known as the Heel Stone – you will see the sun rise above the Heel Stone, as illustrated in the image below.

Stonehenge_heel_stone

The Full Pink Moon

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The March 2013 full moon will be out all night on March 26, shining in front of the constellation Virgo the Maiden. 

The moon turns precisely full on March 27 at 9:27 Universal Time (4:27 a.m. CDT in the central U.S.). In North America, that means the moon reaches the crest of full phase in the wee hours before sunrise on March 27. But no matter where you live worldwide, watch for the brilliant lamp of the full moon to light up the nighttime from dusk till dawn. Look for the moon low in the east at dusk – at its highest point in the sky around midnight – and low in the west before the sun comes up.

Photo credit: Aunt Owwee

For the Northern Hemisphere, this is the first full moon of springtime. We in this hemisphere call it the Pink Moon, to celebrate the return of certain wild flowers. Other names are Egg Moon, Sprouting Grass Moon, or Easter Moon. In most years, the Christian celebration of Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the Northern Hemisphere spring. So tonight’s Easter Moon heralds the coming of Easter Sunday on March 31, 2013.

In the Southern Hemisphere, this is the first full moon of autumn. It’s the Southern Hemisphere’s Harvest Moon – the closest full moon to the autumn equinox. The Harvest Moon ushers in the year’s longest procession of moonlit nights, because the moon rises fairly soon after sunset for several nights in a row. If you live at middle or far southerly latitudes, look for the moon to shine from dusk till dawn for a few to several days in succession.

The first full moon to follow the March equinox faithfully shines in front of Virgo, the harvest goddess, to signal the change of seasons. Watch the March full moon shine all night from sundown to sunup.

The constellation Virgo. Image credit: Wikipedia

 

Welcome To Spring!

Welcome to the first day of spring!

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The vernal equinox occurred this morning (in case you felt something unusual happening…)

It’s the moment when the earth’s axis is not turned toward the sun (summer, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), or away from it (winter), but is aligned with the center of the sun.

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The word equinox comes from Latin: aequus means equal, level, or calm; nox means night, or darkness. The equinox, in spring or fall, is a time when the day and night are as close to equal as they ever are, and when the hours of night are exactly equal for people living equidistant from the equator either north or south.

It also marks the date when gardeners begin their work for the growing season. Margaret Atwood wrote:

“Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

The Return of Persephone

The Return of Persephone

People have celebrated the vernal equinox for centuries. For ancient cultures, the vernal equinox signaled that their food supplies would soon return.

Early Egyptians even built the Great Sphinx of Giza so that it points directly toward the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox.

In Christianity, the vernal equinox is significant because Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The word Ostara is just one of the names applied to the celebration of the spring equinox. The Venerable Bede said the origin of the word is actually from Eostre, a Germanic goddess of spring. It is also the origin of our word Easter.

Ostara

Ostara

Spring equinox signals fertility, both for plants and animals.  In medieval societies in Europe, the March hare was viewed as a major fertility symbol — this is a species of rabbit that is nocturnal most of the year, but in March when mating season begins, there are bunnies everywhere all day long. The males are so frisky that they get frustrated when rebuffed by their mates, and bounce around erratically. Hence the expression “mad as a March hare.”

For years I believed that special astronomical properties of the vernal equinox make it possible to balance eggs on end. This year I found out it is totally untrue.

It’s actually possible to balance eggs on end any day of the year. It just takes a lot of patience and determination. There’s nothing magical about the vernal equinox that makes it any easier to balance an egg on end.

Bummer!

The Vernal Equinox Cocktail

strawberry smash

Celebrating the arrival of Spring!!

Yield:  1 cocktail

Ingredients

3 ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced

6 leaves of mint

1 ounce white rum

1/2 ounce honey and 1/2 ounce water, mixed until honey dissolves

2 ounces prosecco

Directions

Add the strawberries and mint to a rocks glass. Smash the strawberries and mint gently with a muddler until the berries are a pulp and the mint smells strong. Add the rum and honey mixture to the glass and give it a stir. Fill 3/4 full with ice. Top off with the prosecco. Garnish with a sprig of mint!

The Winter Solstice And The Bees

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The Winter Solstice is the real beginning of the cycle of the New Year.

It marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest.

The Solstice officially arrived at the same instant for all of us on Earth – 11:12 UTC – but our clocks say different times due to varying time zones.

This year the Winter Solstice in Cincinnati happened this morning at 6:12 a.m. EST.

hive in winter

After the Winter Solstice the days gradually get longer until spring season arrives. It’s  important to honey bees and how they manage their hive throughout the winter.

Within the darkness of the hive, unable to see that the light lasts a bit longer each day, the Queen Bee senses that the Solstice has arrived. The Winter Solstice is one of the first signs to her that it is time to take up one of the survival tasks of the hive: to begin rearing additional young bees.

Shortly after the Winter Solstice, maybe the next day, maybe several weeks later, the colony raises the core temperature of the winter cluster to about 95*F, the optimal temperature for rearing new bees.

When the colony reaches the desired core temperature the Queen will lay a small patch of brood, using the cells that were emptied of their honey during the preceding weeks of cold.

At first, the amount of brood rearing is small, less than 100 cells. However, as the spring approaches, and the first flowers begin to blossom, the Queen will begin rearing bees at a much higher rate.

The process is slow at first because rearing bees during the winter and keeping the brood nest at 95*F consumes a lot of extra winter stores, more so than if the bees were just clustered together at a cooler 75*F temperature.

They keep warm in the same way we do. They shiver.

Winter Cluster

Winter Cluster

In cold weather, the bees huddle tightly together. Bees on the outside of the cluster form an insulating shell while bees in the center of the cluster generate heat by shivering their flight muscles.

By eating honey (a high-energy food) the bees can generate just over 100*F in their flight muscles. At the center of the cluster is the Queen, where she remains warm and protected from the cold winter air. As bees on the outside chill, they rotate to the center of the cluster.

The bees are starting their cycle of life once more.  Happy Winter Solstice!

Christmas bees

The Harvest Moon

This weekend brings the beautiful Harvest Moon!

The Harvest Moon is the name for the full moon that is closest to the autumnal equinox, which came on Sept. 22 this year.

Here’s what that means for the non-astronomers among us.

On average, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day. But when the full moon occurs near the fall equinox, the gaps between moonrises are shorter. For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the moon rises about 30 minutes later each night. This happens before and after the full moon, resulting in three consecutive days of the moon appearing at nearly the same time.

The early evening moonrises means the Moon shines brightly during early evening for several extra days running — traditionally providing welcome light just when busy farmers needed the extra work hours to get in their crops.

The Harvest Moon may look bigger and seem closer, but it’s not. It’s just another Celestial Grand Illusion!

My First Night In The City

I think London needs a proper nickname.  It really doesn’t have one, not like “The Big Apple” or “The Windy City.”

I’m thinking we should give it one!!

And, given London’s plethora of urban beekeepers, I think it should be something bee-related.  Maybe “The Big Hive” or, even better, “The Queen City.”  That one does double duty!!

Just some suggestions..

I’m thrilled to have arrived in London on the day of the Summer Solstice. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was a nice bit of synchronicity.  The sun even cooperated, making the afternoon very pleasant!!

Here is an original cocktail recipe to celebrate!

The Summer Solstice

½ yellow nectarine
1 lemon wedge
1 tangerine wedge
4  mint leaves
½ oz peach liqueur
1 oz. cognac
½ oz honey

Muddle the nectarine, lemon, and tangerine at the bottom of your shaker. Add ice, liqueur, honey, cognac and mint (slap the mint first), then shake. Pour into an old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice.

Tomorrow morning will find me at Fortnum’s, touring the bee hives!  I will report on my visit promptly!!

A Celebration Of The Vernal Equinox

Today is the Vernal Equinox, a time to celebrate the renewal and rebirth in the world around us.

As Earth revolves around the sun, there are two days each year when the sun is exactly above the equator. These days — called “equinoxes” — occur around March 20 or 21 and September 22 or 23.

Equinox literally means “equal night,” since the length of day and night is nearly equal in all parts of the world during this time.

The March equinox marks when the northern hemisphere starts to tilt toward the sun, which means longer, sunnier days. In the northern hemisphere, the March equinox is called the “vernal equinox” because it signals the beginning of spring (“vernal” means fresh or new like the spring). The September equinox is called the “autumnal equinox” because it marks the first day of autumn.

People have celebrated the vernal equinox for centuries. For ancient cultures, the vernal equinox signaled that their food supplies would soon return.

Early Egyptians even built the Great Sphinx of Giza so that it points directly toward the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox.

In Christianity, the vernal equinox is significant because Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The word Ostara is just one of the names applied to the celebration of the spring equinox. The Venerable Bede said the origin of the word is actually from Eostre, a Germanic goddess of spring. It is also the origin of our word Easter.

Spring equinox signals fertility, both for plants and animals.  In medieval societies in Europe, the March hare was viewed as a major fertility symbol — this is a species of rabbit that is nocturnal most of the year, but in March when mating season begins, there are bunnies everywhere all day long. The males are so frisky that they get frustrated when rebuffed by their mates, and bounce around erratically. Hence the expression “mad as a March hare.”

For years I believed that special astronomical properties of the vernal equinox make it possible to balance eggs on end. This year I found out it is totally untrue.

It’s actually possible to balance eggs on end any day of the year. It just takes a lot of patience and determination. There’s nothing magical about the vernal equinox that makes it any easier to balance an egg on end.

Bummer!