DECEMBER
2009

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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12-23-09

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Winter Solstice is Reason to Celebrate

The winter solstice is defined as the time when the earth's axial tilt is the farthest away from the sun. To be exact, that tilt is 23 degree and 26 minutes. The sun is in the lowest point in the sky for the entire year on that date. For people who live in the earth's northern hemisphere, that means one thing--the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

The exact date of the winter solstice varies depending on the calendar being used. The Julian calendar established Dec. 25 as the exact date of the winter solstice. However, the Gregorian calendar, the one that corrects for a year being a quarter of a day longer than 365 days by throwing in an extra day every four years, has the winter solstice 3 to 4 days earlier. Because we use the Gregorian calendar, the longest night of the year is either Dec. 21 or 22. In 2009 the exact time of the winter solstice was Dec. 21 at 5:47 pm.

Why all the fuss about the longest night of the year? Historically, humans who live in northern latitudes have used the date for the last feasting celebration before winter really set in. Indeed in northern climates, the days following this date promised to be difficult at best and were widely known as the famine season.

The ancient people who constructed Stonehenge carefully aligned the monument to create a sight line that pointed to the sunset on the day of the winter solstice. Christmas, one of the most popular celebrations of the Christian calendar, is set on Dec. 25, which just happened to be the date of the Roman winter solstice on the Julian calendar.

One thing is for sure; people throughout history have created all kinds of celebrations associated with the winter solstice date. And modern humans are no different. This time of the year is called the holiday season for good reason!

The holiday season, in spite of the harsh reality of its beginnings, has indeed become a time of sharing and of celebration. A time for family and for feasting, a time for reflection and looking ahead.

For some people, the holiday season is even happier because insects are at low levels. Most insects, anyway. A few species are exceptions to this rule. For example, cockroaches and bedbugs have taken up permanent residence in our homes and are there to pester us during the winter months! So with this thought in mind I offer the following to celebrate the season.

Christmas comes ‘round but once a year,

A happy season with friends drawing near,

But a great joy of Christmas, some fogey might say,

Is that the insects of summer have all gone away.

But what if those pests would just happen to stay

And share the good tidings of our Christmas Day?

 

Would picnic beetles so lively and quick

Fall from the skies in place of St. Nick?

Would the yuletide dinner not seem quite right

In the presence of mosquitoes that buzz and that bite?

And a Christmas hot toddy could provide a REAL sting

If to it a stray yellow jacket would wing.

 

Of course, tasty eggnog with nutmeg suspended

Would cover up gnats unintentionally upended.

The sweetness of punch, not to mention the candy

Would certainly attract ants and come in quite handy

For these insects to carry as they march underground

To the nest where their larvae can always be found.

 

A ladybug ornament, a fine decoration,

May just brighten up any yule celebration,

But how disconcerting it certainly would be

To find real, live insects chewing the tree!

Not to mention webworms on wreaths filled with snow,

Or beetles and loopers throughout mistletoe.

 

So when carols are finished and Christmas is done.

Look back and count all your blessings -- each one.

Reflect on the times and the season so great

And the holiday magic we all celebrate.

'Tis indeed a season of good will and great cheer,

For not even one bug did dare interfere!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox