Talk about icy doom and gloom! The first day of winter is the shortest, darkest day of the year.
It's enough to make you want to check airfares for Hawaii, or to finally pack for that Florida getaway you've been planning but don't rush off just yet ....
Find out more about the history, legend and science of the earth's annual winter rotation in our decidely upbeat online guide to...
The cliche that it's always darkest before the dawn has its roots in both ancient religion and modern science.
In astronomy, winter solstice is when the earth's orbit tilts away from the sun to bring on the colder days of winter. The day of the winter solstice results in the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
However, with each passing day after the winter solstice the earth begins to tilt back - to face the sun once again to signal the return of spring.
Early celebrations in the Northern Hemisphere
Sol + stice derives from an ancient Latin word meaning "sun" + "to stand still."
In Eastern customs, the ancient Chinese believed that theyin qualities of darkness and cold were at their most powerful point at the winter solstice, but it was also the turning point that gave way to the light and warmth of yang. Today, the celebration of Dong Zhi is the second most important festival of the Chinese calendar after Chinese New Year or Spring Festival
Predating Christianity by centuries, ancient winter solstice celebrations included rituals of light and fire which both helped beat back winter's ominous gloom and actively recognized that brighter days were just ahead.
Makar Sankranti is a huge festival held in India around the time of the winter solstice celebrating the sun's ascendency, marked by gift giving and special prayers. And on the Jewish calendar, the Hanukkah festival of lights is seen by many to be a clear metaphor for the hopeful lengthening of days brought on by the winter solstice.
In the West, the ancient Germanic Yule festival also still survives today in winter feasting that occurs around Christmas, as well as the tradition of the Yule log whose embers it was believed helped frighten away evil spirits.
The early beginnings of Christmas, in fact, have direct roots in the winter solstice celebration that took place at Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture in Roman times.
When Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, the church in its wisdom allowed the Saturnalia tradition to continue, but concluded the week-long festival with a day dedicated to the birth of Christ, or Christ Mass, better known today as Christmas.