I don’t remember when exactly I first realized that days got shorter in winter. At some point, possibly even before an adult pointed it out to me, I must have noticed that in winter it was already getting dark when I’d come home from school. I don’t even remember anyone explaining this phenomenon to me, although I do remember reading about the analemma in a book when I was nine or ten, and seeing a picture of it. And for young readers now there’s by The Shortest Day: Celebrating The Winter SolsticeWendy Pfeffer, with illustrations by Jesse Reich. This book provides a clear, straightforward explanation of why the days get shorter and colder, and has a short history of the study of astronomy in ancient Egypt and China, and discusses solstice traditions in Rome, Britain, Sweden, and even Peru. My one quibble is that, at the beginning, Pfeffer says that, long ago, “People feared that the sun wouldn’t shine on them anymore, making their world cold and dreary dark.” The scholar in me immediately wants to say, “citation, please!” Humans, like other animals, may have always had an instinctive understanding that the shortening of days was merely a temporary and recurring phenomenon, followed by a lengthening of days.
And that’s a minor quibble because The Shortest Day is clear and well-written and has a lengthy section at the end of solstice facts as well as solstice activities. The activities include a chart for tracking sunrises and sunsets, measuring shadows on the shortest day of the year, using a ball to show how the Earth’s tilt makes the seasons, and feeding winter birds.