Feeling blue? Blame it on the solstice

The Charlotte ObserverDecember 21, 2011 

You can be excused for feeling a little depressed today and Thursday, even in the midst of the Christmas season.

We're near the winter solstice, a time of the year with the least daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. Doctors say that causes depression for some people, but there are a lot more depressing places on the first day of winter than the Charlotte region.

The Earth's tilt reaches its farthest point south - 23.5 degrees - at 12:30 a.m. Thursday. That's the official start of winter.

In Charlotte, the least amount of daylight comes today - 9 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds. Compare that to the 14 1/2 hours of daylight on the first day of summer, in June, and you understand why some people find late December and early January a bit gloomy.

Nowadays, we know the Earth wobbles in its orbit around the sun, and by June it tilts more than 23 degrees north. But such scientific knowledge wasn't always available, and historians say it's one reason we celebrate Christmas in December.

The shortening amounts of daylight frightened our ancestors, and Europeans in northern latitudes held celebrations annually on Dec. 20 and 21 because they knew - or hoped - that sunrises would start getting earlier and sunsets later again.

According to the History Channel, the Norse brought home big logs annually on Dec. 21 and burned them. Each spark from the fire supposedly represented a new calf or pig to be born the following year. And that gave rise to the Yule log tradition.

According to historians, Pope Julius I decided in the middle of the 4th century to set the celebration of Christmas for Dec. 25, as a way to absorb the party spirit of Saturnalia, the Roman Empire's old feast of the lengthening days.

In the 1970s, psychologists began studying the depression that some people feel during winter months. The National Institute of Mental Health officially gave the condition a name in 1984 - seasonal affective disorder. The U.S. National Library of Medicine estimates the disorder affects millions in this country, but they say the impact depends on latitude.

For example, about 1.5 percent of Florida residents complain about seasonal affective disorder. In New England, where there is about 90 minutes less daylight at the winter solstice, the percentage jumps to nearly 10 percent.

At least the weather won't depress you, unless you're looking for snow.

"It's nothing like last year," said James Oh of the National Weather Service's office in Greer, S.C. "There is no sign of cold air in the near future. Last December was among the coldest in recent years."

To read more, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.

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