on the Colorado Plateau is a mixed bag of temperature,
precipitation and reduced daylight hours. Gone are
those long days of summer. If you are a member of the
Polar Bear Club you exult in the freezing cold, jump
willingly into iceblocked streams, or fill the darkness
of your nights with a dazzling display of colorful
lights. But if you tend towards a more lizardian nature – as
most Moabites resemble – you find the winter
cold unbearable, the daylight hours a ripoff, and the
night’s darkness more of a curse than a celestial
invitation to view the constellations.
You probably share a daily ritual with ancestors so ancient
that archeologists do not have a name for them. Your
choice of instrumentation is more modern, but not necessarily
more sophisticated. You place your mark, perhaps a large
X or a sunbearing smiley face, over the calendar’s
current day. Sometimes you make a cross in the upcoming
date as if that will hurry up the process of spring returning
to the canyon country. One less day of winter is one
more good day.
But the ancient ones did not have a Nature Conservancy
or World Wildlife Fund glossy calendar hanging on their
cave wall. They didn’t have the frequency of Christmas
music to betray the upcoming event or the sound of shotguns
signaling the New Year. What they did have was a great
deal more patience and understanding that wishing the
sun to hurry up would never have any effect upon its
run across the sky. Those ancient people belonged to
agriculturallybased society and thus they had to pay
better attention to the movement of the sun because this
was a primary factor in their planting and harvesting
In winter, the key solar day is now called Winter Solstice.
Solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium and is
derived from sol meaning “sun” and stitium
meaning “stoppage.” Therefore, the solstice
is when the sun stands still. Of course not literally,
but both the winter and summer solstices are days when
the sun reaches either its most southern or most northern
point on its annual orbit. Though the Earth is closest
to the sun in January, it is the tilt along the Earth’s
axis that is responsible for the different seasons.
Ancient people knew this because they
had developed wall calendars without glossy photos.
These calendars often consisted of some
concentric circles etched into a cliff face or the
construction of a particular window on a dwelling wall.
Sunlight passing through narrow windows or rock walls
created daggers of light that either split these circles
in half or perhaps bordered them on the sides. These
agrarian timekeepers knew that this phenomenon signaled
the time when the daylight hours would start to get
longer in the upcoming future. That and they could
lose the fear that the sun would never return again.
Today, we call December 21 or 22 (this varies due to
the addition of leap years) the Winter Solstice. This
day represents the sun’s southern most point
for the year. Incidentally, this point lies at latitude
roughly 2 3 . 5 d e g r e e s s o u t h o f t h e equator
and is called the Tropic o f Capricorn . Though this
is an imaginary line that circles the planet, and has
an opposite twin the Tropic of Cancer that lies at
the same latitude north of the equator, it is today’s
version of the concentric circle petroglyphs.
The two imaginary lines represent the southern and
northern limits of the sun’s annual movement.
At noon on December 21 (or the 22) the sun is directly
overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn. It marks the shortest
day for daylight hours and heralds the first day of
winter. This is the night when those sun worshipping
lizardians thank their pagan gods the start of the
end of the short days.
But there are those who rejoice in the beginning of
winter not for its soon to follow springtime, but because
winter is a magical season in the Canyon Country.
Though the days are short and the temperatures may
be cold, the canyons and mesas are blanketed by stillness.
The invitation to explore nearby canyons is intoxicating
because of the solitude and quiet. Wildlife seems to
be more evident and though the birds do not sing like
they do in spring, their tenacity to survive under
these conditions is uplifting.
But besides the wildlife and the solitude there are
the winter night skies to lure one outside. The clarity
of the air and the longevity of the night allow one
to watch a feature length drama of Greek gods and creatures
move across the sky. For photographers, winter skies
are an excellent time to shoot star trails or constellations
and still be home at a reasonable hour.
Though the desert can be bitterly cold during the winter,
there is an overwhelming beauty to this time of year.
Snow draped sandstone spires or ice sculptures in the
potholes brings an ephemeral dimension to this land
of rock and sand that is missing for the majority of
the year. And though it may only occur when the sun
stops moving across the sky, Winter Solstice is a time
to celebrate the beginning of a wonderful season in