Longer sunlight on the horizon: How to celebrate Saturday’s winter solstice in Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Longer sunlight on the horizon: How to celebrate Saturday’s winter solstice in Steamboat

Clouds light up above Howelsen Hill Friday as the sun sets in the west. Saturday marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, offering what should be a clear view of the winter constellations.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Winter officially begins Saturday, Dec. 21, marked by a celestial phenomenon called the winter solstice. 

More commonly known as the shortest day of the year, the annual event holds a special place in human history, a time for feasting and spiritual ceremonies. It continues to be a celebrated time of year for many who welcome the progressively longer days that follow the winter solstice. 

Sunrise will begin at 7:26 a.m. Saturday, according to sunrise-sunset.org. The sun will set at 4:43 p.m., making for nine hours and 17 minutes of daylight.   

Those in Steamboat can make the most of the scarce sunlight and the longest night of the year by enjoying some local outdoor activities. 

During the day

On Saturday, Yampatika is hosting a winter solstice snowshoe tour on Rabbit Ears Pass. Lexi Stine, director of adult programs at the environmental stewardship organization, said the hike will teach people about the solstice and how to identify certain animal tracks in the snow.

“We like to celebrate what is happening outdoors and being attentive to nature,” Stine said of Yampatika, adding that many people see the winter solstice on the calendar but do not understand what it really means. 

For her, the celestial event brings a sense of relief, looking ahead to longer days.

“I get tired of the days being so short,” Stine said. 

The group will meet at 9:45 a.m. at the U.S. Forest Service Office, 925 Weiss Drive, and depart by 10 a.m. Participants will return around 2 p.m. 

The route will vary based on snow conditions, weather and group size. Stine said the group will travel at a leisurely pace, stopping to inspect animal tracks and discuss how various species survive the winter.   

“We are out there to explore and check out nature. It’s not a race or anything,” Stine said.

The event costs $20, which includes a pair of snowshoes if needed. Stine also recommends people bring waterproof boots, wool socks, warm layers and sun protection.  

At and after sunset

As the sun makes its descent, marking the start of the longest night, it should offer a brilliant display of colors over the Yampa Valley.  

December offers some of the most vibrant sunsets of the year, according to Stephen F. Corfidi with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This is because there is less fog and haze in the winter months. 

To snag a good sunset spot, head to a location with a good view of the western horizon, according to Paul McCudden, who teaches astronomy at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs. He recommends the hills around the college, which also is the site of the Ball Observatory.

“The sun sets right behind the hills over there, and you get a good view of the western and southern skies,” McCudden said. 

Just after the sun dips below the horizon, he said to look out for Venus and Saturn, which should be visible in line with the setting sun.

“The brighter one is Venus and the slightly dimmer one is Saturn,” he said. 

Saturday night should be mostly clear, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, offering a good view of the winter constellations such as Orion and Taurus. 

About an hour after nightfall, at 5:30 p.m., Steamboat Resort will open night skiing until 8 p.m. Visitors can take Christie Peak Express for a few laps under the stars. 

Understanding the winter solstice

Cultures across the world, from the Romans to the Incans to the Chinese have celebrated the winter solstice. Historians say this is because the seasons played a vital role in the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers, who had a great reverence for the sun. Old winter solstice traditions have shaped holidays celebrated today, including Christmas and Hanukkah, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica

For example, in ancient Britain, druids — Celtic priests — would cut mistletoe growing on oak trees and offer it as a blessing, according to the BBC. The bright red berries were seen as a beacon of hope and life amid the bleak winter months. 

Pagan-rooted festivities continue to this day. Every year, modern druids and pagans travel to Stonehenge to attend one of the more famous celebrations of the winter solstice. As the sun rises, they chant, dance and sing to greet the coming of longer days. While historians remain uncertain why the famous stones were placed there some 5,000 years ago, a popular theory is Stonehenge marked the solstices and equinoxes. During the winter solstice, the structure perfectly frames the sunset, according to the historic conservation nonprofit English Heritage

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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