As the winter solstice approaches, it might help your students to know that the darkest days are nearly behind them. Students can explore a variety of Web sites that provide information about the Winter Solstice. Included: More than a dozen activities for celebrating the Solstice!
In may seem as though winter is just about to begin, but, in fact, the darkest season is nearing its end -- at least astronomically! The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and at that point the days begin to grow longer again.
Today, we know that the Winter Solstice is an easily explained astronomical event. Earth, scientists tell us, is tilted slightly on its axis. As it revolves around the sun, that tilt angles Earth's Northern Hemisphere toward the sun for part of the orbit and away from the sun for another part of the orbit. When the tilt is toward the sun, the days are long and the Northern Hemisphere experiences summer. When the tilt is away from the sun, the days are short and we experience winter. When the sun reaches the southern-most point in relation to Earth, the shortest day of the year -- the Winter Solstice -- occurs.
Observances of the winter solstice have had a unique history. For hundreds of years, many people believed that the changing seasons and fluctuating hours of sunlight were controlled by a group of deities known as sun gods. The early pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice by honoring those gods with a variety of festivals and rituals designed to curry the gods' favor and ensure the sun's speedy return. In the Roman Empire, the Winter Solstice was further recognized by the celebration of the "Birthday of the Sun" on December 25th.
In the fourth century A.D., church leaders in Rome attempted to eliminate the pagan festivities by adopting December 25th as Christ's birthday. They hoped to replace the pagan customs with Christian traditions. The effort was never completely successful, however, and eventually many Winter Solstice customs were incorporated into Christmas observances.
By the tenth century, Christmas, with its colorful ceremonies and parades and entertaining performances, was the most celebrated holiday in Europe. In the 16th century, the festivities became so lively that Parliament passed a law abolishing Christmas altogether. Eventually the law was repealed, but today's winter solstice festivities are largely secular celebrations, held to brighten up the dark days of winter and remind celebrants of the spring to come.
Help your students understand, and participate in, both the historical and scientific aspects of this year's celebrations by introducing them to a selection of the activities below.
Science -- learn how Earth moves. Explain to students that scientists now know that the amount of sunlight is determined by the relative position of Earth and the sun. Create a bulletin board display showing Earth and the sun. Be sure the equator is clearly marked. Each day, change Earth's position and tilt and ask students to identify the season in various parts of the world.
Math -- make a graph. Ask students to look at the weather page of their local newspapers to find the times of sunrise and sunset over the course of a week or two. Then have them create a double bar graph showing the information. Or help younger students calculate the total hours of sunlight for each day and create a single bar graph showing that information. When the graph is complete, ask: Are the days getting longer or shorter?
Weather -- study the weather. Invite students to study the national and regional weather maps at CNN Weather. Ask them to compare the winter weather in various parts of the United States. Ask students questions, such as: Which states are farthest from the equator? Which states have the warmest temperatures today? Which have the coldest temperatures today? Which states are closest to the equator? Why are winter temperatures in Florida warmer than winter temperatures in Michigan?
Mapmaking -- make a weather map. As a follow-up to the previous activity, provide students with a map of your state and ask them to create a map showing the day's weather.
Crafts -- make a birdfeeder. Invite students to make a Pinecone Bird Feeder. As a follow-up to making feeders, hang them outside a classroom window and keep track of the birds that visit. For directions and feed recipes see feeder resource 1, 2, and 3.
Listening Skills -- learn about the winter solstice. Read a short book, such as The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson. Then ask students questions, such as: When is the Winter Solstice celebrated? How did the Winter Solstice celebrations begin? Who first celebrated the Winter Solstice? What traditions that began during ancient Solstice celebrations are still followed today?
Math -- find the time. Have students study the Almanac of Key Terrestrial Events, Solstices, Equinoxes and Cross Quarters and determine the time difference between Universal Time and their own local time.
Categorizing -- how animals adapt. Help students make a list of animals that live in your area of the country. Be sure to include birds, fish, and insects in your list. Then have students use classroom, library, and online sources to research the animals and learn how each kind of animal adapts to winter weather. Create a bulletin board display showing the animals in categories according to their winter behavior.
Literature -- folklore. Invite students to visit StormFax Winter Weatherlore and Folklore Forecasts and read the predictions. Ask them to decide which of the predictions are folklore and which are weatherlore. Encourage students to write original folklore or weatherlore predictions based on their own observations of the seasons.
Reading -- make a dictionary. Provide students with a list of words related to the winter solstice, such as equinox, solstice, equator, hemisphere, ecliptic, celestial, equinox, orbit, and so on. Ask students to write definitions for each word and then create a winter solstice dictionary. Remind students to put words in the dictionary in alphabetical order.
Art -- create a comic strip. Have students read the Starman Winter Solstice cartoon and encourage them to create their own cartoon or comic strip about the seasons.
Create a Solstice Celebration. As a follow-up to the previous activity, encourage students to incorporate aspects of their own holidays into an original class Winter Solstice celebration. Activities might include decorating the classroom with evergreens and mistletoe, making and exchanging small gifts, or changing places with the teacher for a time.
Art -- make a holiday card. Invite students to explore the cards created for a variety of winter holidays -- including Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa -- at American Greetings and Blue Mountain Greetings. Then have students create and send their own holiday cards.
The Evolution of Christmas
This site explains the links between Christmas and early pagan holidays, such as the Winter Solstice.
The Old Farmer's Almanac
Find long- and short-term weather forecasts and an abundance of weatherlore.
This site includes a graph showing how the date of the Winter Solstice changes from year to year, a table of universal times of the Winter Solstice, a QuickTime movie illustrating the tilt of Earth relative to the sun, and other miscellaneous data about the Winter Solstice. The information is clearly written and the movie, which takes several minutes to load, provides an excellent visual resource for Earth's revolutions.
Article by Linda Starr
Copyright © Education World
Last updated 8/13/2012