Winter Solstice celebrates a turning point in Vail Valley |

Winter Solstice celebrates a turning point in Vail Valley

Gina Garrett
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail Valley, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – For many of us living in the Vail Valley, we eagerly count down the days until the snow begins to fly.

This day often arrives in November, well before winter has officially started. That’s also when we question whether or not it is going to be a good year – a good year means countless days of floating through knee-deep powder.

Winter begins for us when the sport that brought many to this mountain playground becomes more available. But to the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice, around Dec. 21 each year, marks the first official day of winter.

What exactly is the Winter Solstice? It is a natural event that holds great importance in many cultures around the world and is celebrated with a variety of ceremonies and rituals. However, let’s begin with the scientific explanation.

Seasons are a result of the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis and its orbit around the sun. The Earth remains tilted in the same direction, with its North Pole pointed towards the star Polaris as it travels around the Sun. This tilt of Earth’s access (23.5 degrees) causes the Northern and Southern hemispheres to be exposed to different amounts of sunlight throughout the year. It is the variations in the length and intensity of exposure to the sun that gives us our spring, summer, fall, and winter.

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In our part of the world, the Winter Solstice marks the point at which the axis, or North Pole, is tilted the furthest away from the sun. This is the shortest day of the year for people in the Northern Hemisphere and from this day forward the days will get longer – until the Summer Solstice, which marks the longest day of the year. Simple enough, right?

But imagine not having a scientific explanation as to why the days have become shorter and the nights longer. Imagine thinking that the sun would eventually cease to exist and darkness would cover the Earth. Without light there could be no plants, no animals and no humans. Many ancient cultures feared that the sun’s light would not return unless humans intervened with special rituals and ceremonies.

We don’t know when people began marking the Winter Solstice as a turning point, but it is from this long ago belief that many of our current-day winter celebrations originated. In the Northern Hemisphere, the passing of the Winter Solstice meant the return of the sun that had seemed to be disappearing. Many religious and cultural traditions celebrated the rebirth of sunlight after this dark period.

Evidence of these celebrations exists in our traditions today. Traditions that include gift giving, elaborate feasts, lighting candles, festive decorations, singing and, most of all, appreciating family, friends and life.

With the official first day of winter nearing, we have the comfort of knowing that the sun in fact will return. So what will you celebrate on this Dec. 21. Longer days? Or living in a place where colder days and snow-filled skies bring excitement and hope for another good year?

The Gore Range Natural Science School’s Curious Nature column appears Mondays in the Vail Daily and on Gina Garrett is the youth programs director at Gore Range Natural Science School where she enjoys teaching children about the natural world (

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