Short Day, Long Shadow

Last year I let the Winter Solstice slip by unnoticed, only pointing back at it when the days were starting to stretch out. This year I thought I’d beat the rush and mark the shortest day a day early.

Fundamental as the law is in our society, it has little or nothing to say about the day the miserly sun stands still [solstice – mid-13c., from O.Fr. solstice, from L. solstitium “point at which the sun seems to stand still,” from sol “sun” (see sol) + pp. stem of sistere “to come to a stop, make stand still”], an event that human beings, in the North, at least, have always regarded as profoundly important. So far as I know, no Canute-like ruler has ever issued a ukase, edict, or fiat commanding the day to expand more generously. And neither has a Western legislature proclaimed it a holiday.

In fact, the best I can do for a link between December 21 and law is to highlight, so to speak, the fact that the Winter Solstice represents a useful point in the business of urban development, being that day when a proposed development might shade its neighbours most unhappily. By-laws and building committees need to know how bad it could get, and things called shadow studies can tell them.

Last year I referred to a Barrie company that does these studies. This year I want to show you one. So here’s a time-lapse shadow study for the Winter Solstice in San Francisco. And to make you feel better, you can play the Summer Solstice study as well.


  1. I can’t think of any proposals made to the Ontario government in my quarter century that suggest any change to the solstice. On the other hand, much of the debate about daylight saving time – whether to have it, how long to have it, how much of it to have (e.g. double daylight) – depends on knowing when the sun comes up at different times of the year.

    I have had to explain to correspondents that the government (at least the Ontario government – maybe it’s federal jurisdiction…) cannot change the number of hours of sunlight the province receives from time to time. All we can do is say how the time on the clock relates to the passage of the sun across the sky (OK, apparent passage).

    A complicating factor is the width of the Eastern time zone – one of the widest in the world. We get more than our 15-degree share of the world, at least in parts. That means that there is more than an hour’s difference of ‘real’ sun time at the same hour on the clock on the east side of the zone and the west. (In the normal time zone there would of course be an hour’s difference.) So the mornings in Thunder Bay are pretty dark just before the end of daylight savings time.

    The distance north-to-south is also relevant. After a certain latitude (in either direction), daylight time is less useful. I haven’t heard much from the farther reaches of Northern Ontario about whether it works for them, though I know that some first nation communities along the Eastern/Central zone border do not, or did not back when I looked at the question, observe daylight time at all.

    As a cyclist, I look forward to the days getting longer, even if they are still going to get colder for a couple of months.

  2. Tonight is supposed to be a rare lunar eclipse along with our winter solstice. According to the Montreal Gazette, this combination has not happened in over 450 years. I heard from Breakfast Television this morning that the next one is not for another 84 years.

    The darkest time is supposed to take place just after 3 am ET.