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Essay: Sunday is NOT the Shortest Day of the Year

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Sunday is the solstice, an important marker in the progression of the year.

From time immemorial, mankind has noted when the sun stops its southern progression and begins to move back north. In places as far flung as the Peruvian Andes and southwestern England our ancient ancestors paid homage to the solstice in public ceremonial structures, in those cases Machu Picchu and Stonehenge, respectively. Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, where the December solstice marks a dark time of the year, great religions responded by creating festivals near it containing real or spiritual light, Chanukah for Jews, Christmas for Christians.

The solstice occurs when, at noon, the sun is directly over one of the tropical latitudes – the Tropic of Cancer in June, the Tropic of Capricorn in December. This year, that is at 5:03 p.m. Dec. 21 in Milwaukee. This endless progression is easily understood, and appreciated. But I have always had a problem with how many people describe the event.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we tend to call the December solstice the shortest day of the year, while the June one is termed the longest (it is just the opposite on the Southern Hemisphere, of course.) But that is not right.

What people mean is that the December solstice has the least possible amount of sunshine of any day of the year, while the one in June has the most possible daylight. That is an entirely different thing from saying the days vary in length. Actually, every day has 24 hours, or 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds. Well, sort of. Occasionally, a leap second is added to keep atomic clocks in sync with the actual rotation of the Earth, which varies because of things like tides and the moon. The last leap second was added on June 30, 2012.

Scientists also calculate time on Earth by looking at quasars and can further complicate things by taking into account that the Earth’s orbit is at times eccentric and that the equator is not aligned with that orbit. Including all of this makes the calculation of time exceedingly complicated, spinning the head of a mathematically phobic amateur such as me.

Instead, I like to revel in the comforting clockwork of the universe made obvious by the progression of the sun demarked by the solstices, a universal constant influencing custom, belief and religion throughout human history.

That is certainly something worth celebrating. Just don’t refer to Sunday as the shortest day of the year. It isn’t. Probably.

Avi Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than 35 years and is an occasional panelist on the Interchange program on Milwaukee Public Television. He is the co-author of The Man Who Painted the Universe, the story of a planetarium in the north woods of Wisconsin, to be published in June by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. He lives in in Whitefish Bay.

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