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Solstices are short periods during the course of the calendar year when the equator of the Earth is at the greatest distance from the sun. This phenomenon is created when the axis of the planet is tiled directly towards or away from the sun, causing the exposure of the equator of the planet to be further away from the rays of the sun. The time of solstice also has a direct impact on the amount of daylight that is experienced in different parts of the world just before, during, and after the occurrence.
The name for this period when the equator is furthest from the sun has its roots in two Latin words or terms. Sol is Latin for the sun, while sistere is understood to translate as standing still. Thus, a solstice is a time when it appears that the sun is standing still rather than moving around the earth. The actual word dates back to a time in human history when the earth was understood to be the center of the universe.
In many cultures, the solstice marks the midway point of a given season. People around the world tend to be familiar with the summer and winter solstices. What may be less well known is that many of the important holidays that are important to many different faiths and cultures take place in close proximity to these two periods. Holidays such as Saturnalia, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa occur close to the winter solstice. Midsummer, St. John’s Eve, and the Wiccan holy day of Litha are all associated with the summer solstice.
In addition to the two times when the earth’s axis tilts the equator away from the sun, some people also count the occurrence of seasonal equinoxes as a time of solstice. The celebrations of Passover and Easter occur around the time of the spring equinox, while the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is close to the autumn equinox.
@Markerrag -- And I bet a lot of people don't know that. I'm not sure about how accurate the placement of Easter is, but I do know that Christ was most likely born in the spring instead of on December 25.
But, as you hinted, the actually dates did not matter so much. Converting pagans to Christianity was the goal and early Christians did that job well.
And don't take that to mean that I don't think putting those essential Christian holidays where they are is a bad idea or a move that diminished the significance of the events observed.
There is a very good reason that you find a couple of very important Christian holidays near those events. Pagan rituals were centered around both the winter solstice and spring equinox, so Christmas and Easter were put near them to co-opt those holidays.
It was a great strategy to help convert pagans to Christianity.
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