Embrace December, Month Of The Radiant Sun

The sun shines between the trees on a cross country ski trail in Duluth, Minn. yesterday afternoon. Bob King

Summer brings long hours of sunshine and winter takes them away. Throughout history, winter has been associated with darkness, scarcity and cold, all of which are perfectly reasonable descriptions of the season. Days are short, crops don’t grow and no one likes to freeze. Where I live the day length has dwindled to about 8½ hours, and we’re still more than two weeks from the solstice.

A few winters ago I finally became aware of something that had been staring me in the face for years. The sun! It was a November afternoon, and I was walking in the sun’s direction along a downtown sidewalk. The blazing disk shown directly down the street and flooded my vision with so much light I could hardly see my way ahead. I stopped for a moment and let the light caress my face. I could even feel its warmth on my cheeks and closed eyes.

The sun rises over Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. During winter’s short days, the sun spends a lot of time at low altitude, the reason it’s often in our face this time of year. Bob King

I stepped into this in-your-face light bath again and again and came to realize how truly radiant and ever-present a December sun could be. Can you guess why? In the winter the sun spends most of its time low in the sky. That low path is the reason the days are so short. The sun rises late, never climbs higher than about two fists (~20-25°) at noon, and sets early. Whether you’re walking, snowshoeing or running an errand, it’s nearly always in your face.

At times that can be unpleasant as when driving your car directly into the blinding light, but outside of a car, I’ve learned to stop and appreciate the bounty of winter sunlight despite the season’s scarcity of daylight hours. My technique is simple. I stop and face the sun, catch a glancing glimpse of the brilliant disk (remember to never stare directly at the sun!) and then close my eyes and let it fill my face. Through my lidded eyes the sunlight fades to deep pink, the color of twilight, as my body soaks in the radiance of a real star.

On the winter solstice, which occurs on Dec. 21 this year, the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky. It rises late, spends only a few hours above the horizon and sets early. Stellarium

As long as there is little to no wind I’m always amazed — even when the temperature is below zero — that I can feel a trickle of heat, a gentle warming of the skin from the incoming solar photons. Light is both wave and particle. When I pause to face the center of the solar system I like to imagine light as gazillions  of particles (called photons) gently pinging my skin like an electromagnetic massage. Each one has traveled 93 million miles (150 million km), equal to 8.3 minutes of time moving at the speed of light, to buoy my winter soul with brilliance.

We all possess a handy tool to measure elevation in the sky — the balled fist, equal to 10° at arm’s length. Bob King

Curious how high the sun climbs from your location? Go outside around noon. Make a balled fist and hold it vertically at arm’s length against the sky. Your fist spans about 10° of altitude. If you can fit two of them between the sun and the horizon its altitude is about 20°. If four and a half fists fill that space the sun is 45° high or halfway between the horizon and overhead point.

If winter feels constricting and you need a lift, step outside on a blue-sky day, close your eyes and face the radiant center of the solar system.

2 Responses

  1. rmf

    Nice end of year, “reflection.” It often strikes me as miraculous that this run-of-the-mill Star is a large reason why we are here observing it.

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