Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Today is one of the days I most look forward to during the year, in a perverse sort of way.  The Winter Solstice is when those of us on the northern half of the globe, get to enjoy – if you can use that word – the shortest day of the year.

Now, while this is true for anyone living north of the tropics, the Winter Solstice takes on a much greater significance the closer you get to the North Pole.  Sure, even in Florida or Los Angeles the sun will not hang in the sky today quite as long as it did yesterday, but who would ever notice?  It’s only up here in the far north that the true meaning of the solstice becomes so painfully clear.

Location does matter.  The further north you travel, the shorter the winter days become until, way past the Arctic Circle, the whole concept of “day” becomes moot.  Up there, for a couple of months, there isn’t any such a thing as “day”.

Luckily, here in Helsinki, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) below the Arctic Circle, we still have some hope of sunshine even on the shortest day of the year.  Theoretically, the sun rose this morning at 9:24 and will set less than six hours later at 15:24.  We’ll have to take the astronomers’ word for this, since we live under a semi-permanent cover of gray clouds that doesn’t allow us even the smallest glimpse of the sun.  What we are likely to get today is varying shades of gray light for a few hours before total darkness creeps in again.  Unfortunately – and especially so for those of us born in sunnier climes – these gray days are not exceptional.

Once in Georgia, after I had moved back there in the late 80s to study journalism, we had a spell of cloudy weather that lasted more than two days.  On the third day of completely overcast skies, my friends were about to pull their hair out, asking "Where is the sun?”  I couldn’t help but laugh and say:  “This is nothing.  This is nothing.”  It’s true:  here in Finland you can easily go two weeks without the sun ever penetrating the soup of clouds overhead.

An oddity about the solstice in Finland is that it often arrives a day later than it appears on American calendars, due to the time difference.  It seems that the exact moment the North Pole is pointed the farthest away from the sun (in other words, the solstice) occurred this year in the wee hours of this morning Finnish time, when it was still December 21st back in the States.   Who knew astronomy could be so complicated?

While I can’t claim to know that much about the stars, I do like looking up at them now and then.  That’s not something you can often do in Finland, and it’s something I especially miss about living in the States.

When they were small, our kids had the chance to enjoy a couple of classic summer activities on our yearly visits to my parents, activities that were denied them in Finland.  One was running around in the pasture trying to catch “lightning bugs” (fireflies).  The other was stretching out flat on our backs on my parents’ driveway, gazing at a sky full of stars like they never had seen before.  Sprawling side by side on concrete that was still warm from the heat of the day, we would take in the entire spectacle of the Milky Way, the constellations, the planets, the occasional meteor streaking overhead. 

Here in Finland, in summer (the flip-side of the dark winters), it’s never dark enough to see stars.  The most you get, even at midnight, is a bit of twilight.  And in winter, when it is undeniably dark enough to see stars, it’s either too cloudy or too cold.  Try standing in knee-deep snow, craning your neck at the heavens in -20 C weather and see how long it takes before you decide instead to go inside and marvel at the cosmos on the Discovery Channel. 

It’s this lack of sun and sky, and not the frigid climate, that has always been the part of the Finnish winter hardest for me to adjust to.  While winters here are cold, it’s not always as cold as you might think.  On any given winter day, it can even be warmer in Helsinki than in my hometown in the north Georgia mountains.  It does sometimes happen.  I can easily put up with the cold weather here – it’s the darkness that can sometimes be hard to take.  That’s why I get some perverse pleasure when the shortest and darkest day of the year finally arrives.  From here on, it’s all downhill.  Beginning tomorrow, the days start getting longer. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice explanation in layman's terms. I especially enjoyed the description of you and your kids lying in the driveway of your parents' Gilmer County home looking up at the stars. One of the things that I miss about the Gilmer County of my youth is seeing the night sky. Atlanta was still far enough away in those days that light pollution wasn't a problem. It's been a very long time since I've seen the Milky Way as brilliantly as I could see it from our mountaintop in Gilmer.