Winter Solstice 2017: 10 Facts About the Shortest Day of the Year

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istock

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you’re a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the solstice.

1. IT HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21 UTC THIS YEAR.

Sun shining through a tree.
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The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. IT HAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

Sunset in polar landscape.
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2017, this moment occurs at 4:28 p.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). For those of us on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:28 a.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet (you can check what time it will occur for you here).

3. IT MARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

New York City in winter.
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As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It’s no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

Tree branches in winter.
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The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the Sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE DAY MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth.
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The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

Sun over a snowy mountain.
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Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the Sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the Sun’s trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON WINTER SOLSTICE.

Sun shining through Stonehenge
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The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the Sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia’s reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Spooky forest.
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The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

Sunset over water.
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Mayans, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the Sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Being Surrounded By Greenery Can Be Good for Your Heart

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iStock.com/Givaga

Living in a place with a little greenery is good for your health in more ways than one. Recent research has found that people perceive their health status as significantly better if they live around trees, and for good reason—in addition to helping you chill out, exposure to lots of green vegetation may be good for your cardiovascular health, as Cardiovascular Business reports.

A new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that living in green areas is correlated with certain biomarkers for cardiovascular health. Scientists analyzed blood and urine samples from 408 people at a cardiology clinic, then compared the results to satellite-derived data on the levels of greenery around those patients’ homes (using 820-foot and half-mile radiuses).

Adjusting for age, sex, race, smoking status, “neighborhood deprivation” and other factors known to be linked heart disease rates, the researchers found that living in a green area was correlated with several markers of a healthy heart. Blood and urine samples from those participants who lived in green neighborhoods showed lower levels of sympathetic activation—the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response, which raises the heart rate and is involved in heart failure. Those participants also had reduced oxidative stress—an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can cause tissue damage and is linked to chronic disease. And they had higher angiogenic capacity, which refers to the body’s ability to form new blood vessels.

All this suggests that being around trees is somehow linked to having a healthier heart, though these are just biomarkers, not rates of heart disease or major cardiac events. But while scientists have yet to prove directly that being around trees causes your heart to be healthier, it’s not the first study to suggest a link. In 2015, a study of American women found that rates of heart disease went up in certain areas after a beetle invasion killed off a significant number of trees. Other studies have suggested that being around trees can reduce stress, which in itself may affect your risk of heart disease. Luckily, whether it qualifies as heart medicine or not, spending more time hanging out under trees couldn’t hurt.

[h/t Cardiovascular Business]

14 Facts About Feet

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iStock/pepifoto

The foot is one of the most overworked, under-appreciated parts of the human body. Think about it: In a single day, the average person takes 8000 to 10,000 steps. That works out to be four trips around the world over a lifetime, putting a lot of wear and tear on your intricate foot bones. The foot may be humble, but its design is essential to how we walk upright, and hoofing it on two feet is a defining feature of humanity. Here are some fun—and a few funky—facts about the human foot.

1. FOOT BONES MAKE UP ABOUT A QUARTER OF ALL THE BONES IN OUR BODIES.

There are 26 foot bones in each of your feet—one less than in each hand. When we’re born, those foot bones are mostly cartilage. They only completely harden around age 21.

2. HUMANS HAVE WORN SHOES FOR A VERY LONG TIME.

When did humans begin wearing shoes, anyway? About 40,000 years ago, according to research from Washington University in St. Louis that analyzed foot bones from Neanderthals and early humans. Older specimens had thicker, stronger toes, likely from gripping the ground as they walked barefoot. That’s around the same time that the archaeological record shows a burst of artistic and technological advancements among early humans, including the first stone tools, which may have aided in the production of shoes. The oldest preserved shoe, incidentally, is 5500 years old and was found in an Armenian cave, buried in sheep dung.

3. THE BIG TOE USED TO BE A KIND OF FOOT THUMB.

This grasping toe helped our predecessors climb trees and, when young, grip onto their mothers. Thanks to modern science, if you lose your thumb, you can now replace it with a toe: toe-to-thumb transplants are a surprisingly common procedure these days.

4. FOOT BONES HOLD BIG CLUES ABOUT THE EVOLUTION OF BIPEDALISM.

Scientists are studying Homo naledi, a specimen discovered in a South African cave in 2013 that many researchers believe is a new human relative. H. naledi had very human-like feet, but with somewhat curved toe bones that suggest it climbed trees. It could be that H. naledi was beginning to experiment with walking. 

5. THERE WAS A FOOT CHEESE EXHIBITION IN IRELAND.

Warm, sweaty feet make a perfect home for bacteria, which feed on our dead skin cells and produce gases and acids that emit those arresting foot odors. They're apparently also good at cultivating cheese. An exhibition in Dublin in 2013 displayed a variety of cheeses made with bacteria samples obtained from real people’s feet, armpits, and belly buttons. Delicious. (No one actually ate any of the cheeses.)

6. FEET ARE ONE OF THE MOST TICKLISH PARTS OF THE BODY.

There’s a good reason for that: Humans have nearly 8000 nerves in our feet and a large number of nerve endings near the skin. Having ticklish feet can be a good sign: Reduced sensitivity can be an indicator of peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the feet caused by nerve damage). 

7. FOOT NUMBNESS CAN CAUSE BIG PROBLEMS FOR DIABETICS.

Complications of diabetes include poor circulation and foot numbness that can lead to serious skin ulcers, which sometimes require amputation of toes or feet. In 2010 alone, 73,000 lower-limb amputations were performed on diabetics.

8. FOOT SIZES AND WIDTHS IN THE U.S. AND UK ARE INCREASING.

Feet are spreading to support extra weight as our populations pack on the pounds. According to a 2014 study by the College of Podiatry in the UK, the average foot has increased two sizes since the 1970s. As people have grown taller and heavier, feet respond by growing. It appears many people are still in denial about their expanding feet: Though retailers are starting to respond by making larger and roomier shoes, half of women and a third of men reported they buy poorly fitting shoes. Podiatrists say ill-fitting shoes are to blame for a significant portion of foot problems, especially among women.

9. MANY GLAMOROUS CELEBRITIES HAVE BIG FEET.

From the bound feet of female Chinese elites to Cinderella and Barbie, freakishly small feet are often celebrated as more feminine. But plenty of glamorous women both past and present have had larger than average feet, among them Jacqueline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Uma Thurman, and Audrey Hepburn (size 10, 11, 11, and 10.5, respectively).

10. WOMEN HAVE FOUR TIMES AS MANY FOOT PROBLEMS AS MEN.

That painful fact is often attributed to wearing heels. Ironically, Western women started wearing heels to effect a more masculine look: European men adopted the look from Persian warriors in the 17th century, and women soon followed suit.

11. THE AVERAGE PERSON WALKS ABOUT 100,000 MILES IN A LIFETIME. 

That’s a lot of stress on our feet. It’s not surprising, then, that lower back pain, headaches, indigestion, and spine misalignment are often related to foot problems. Some runners blow way past this mark: They've logged at least 100,000 in running miles alone. One committed runner, Herb Fred, has run a whopping 247,142 miles.

12. FOOT SIZE HAS ZERO TO DO WITH PENIS SIZE.

In a study published in 2015, researchers synthesized data from 17 previous studies that included the penis measurements of more than 15,000 men from around the world. The results: There is little evidence that penis size is linked to height, body mass, or shoe size.

13. THERE'S A REASON GRANDPA'S TOENAILS LOOK LIKE THAT.

Ever heard someone describing their toenails as “horse hooves”? As we get older, our toenails tend to thicken, making them hard to trim. This happens because toenails grow more slowly as we age, causing the nail cells to accumulate. Stubbing toes, bad shoes, and dropping things on your feet can also cause thickening, as can fungal infections and peripheral arterial disease, which narrows arteries and reduces the blood flow to limbs.

14. THERE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR MOST FEET AND ARMPITS SNIFFED.

Odds are you don’t have any job-related tasks nearly as revolting as this one: In the 15 years that Madeline Albrecht worked for an Ohio lab that tests Dr. Scholl products, she sniffed more than 5600 feet and untold numbers of armpits. Albrecht currently holds the Guinness World Record for—yes, this is a category—the number of feet and armpits sniffed.

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