Finding Wonder and Beauty in the Solstice Darkness

December 24, 2021

Twenty-three and a half degrees. Actually, is 23.4 degrees, but let’s not get too technical. It’s going to change anyway. That’s the tilt of the earth. Paraphrasing the classic Sam Cooke song, “Don’t know much about astronomy,” but I’ll say it – I am geeked-out-over-the-moon-fascinated by the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

Tuesday was the Winter Solstice. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the shortest and darkest day of the year. One of the super cool things about hanging out with me is that on days like the solstice, I ask whoever will (or has to) listen, “And do you know why we have a solstice?” And the even cooler thing about enjoying my company is that whether or not you want to hear it, I will launch into the answer.

I ask whoever will (or has to) listen, “And do you know why we have a solstice?” And the even cooler thing about enjoying my company is that whether or not you want to hear it, I will launch into the answer.

It’s all about the tilt of the earth. Let’s review, shall we?

  • The earth is tilted at 23.4 degrees.
  • The tilt was caused by an ancient collision with a planet-sized body, that may have also resulted in the creation of the moon. (Did you feel your mind explode a little there?)
  • Right now, in the Northern Hemisphere, we are tilted as far away as we will get from the sun, which means the days are shorter, the nights are longer, and we get far less heat from the sun.
  • There was no sunset on Antarctica on Tuesday night, and there was no light shining on Santa’s home. See 1-minute video of the sun doing a 24-hour circle dance above Antarctica here. (I did not find a video on the darkness of the North Pole – seems like it would be, well, dark.)
  • Our 23.4-degree axis points directly at Polaris, which is the Northern Hemisphere’s North Star.

I bet right now most of you still reading are saying, I wish I could hang out with Mike and hear that description four times a year, with every solstice or equinox. You are not alone. If you work on it, you can learn to roll your eyes as well as my family or co-workers do.

So on this special day, inspired by the day’s brevity and the longest night, I tried to make the most of it. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 4:30 AM: (still dark) emptied the dishwasher and did my daily make the kitchen spotless ritual. After stretching, I left for swimming at 5:15.
  • 5:55 AM: (still dark) Jumped into the outdoor pool (quite warm – almost 80 degrees), and swam 3,000 yards with other Masters Swimming crazy people. Took a hot shower afterwards, outside in the cold and wind. The swimming felt great, the shower hurt.
  • 6:57 AM: Sunrise.
  • 9:00 AM: Shopped for ingredients for soups for dinners this week, as there’s nothing like soup when it’s darker and colder, This week I’m making Tomato Bread Soup, Split Pea Soup, and Won Ton Soup. Combine that with some brown Irish Soda Bread, and you are thriving in the darkness!
  • 11:00 AM: Made a lunch of Won Ton Soup that will soon make its way to
  • 1:00 PM: Epic Nap
  • 4:30 PM: Sunset walk on the beach with Jill. Singing to myself the rest of that Sam Cooke song, “And I do know that I love you. And I know that if you love me too, what a wonderful world this would be.”
  • 4:51 PM: Sunset in Malibu – As you can see from the picture above, it was windy and cold, but pretty spectacular!
  • 5:30 PM: Impromptu drinks with friends at the beach, hearing the sounds of a nearby solstice wedding as the shortest day’s light faded.
  • 6:00 PM: Darkness falls, and we get to see Venus, Jupiter, and, following the 23.4-degree tilt of our planet, we see Polaris, heading home knowing where to find pretty true north.

That’s a pretty good day!

These dark days bring opportunities for reflection and celebration. We have enjoyed Hanukkah celebrations with friends, masked or virtual birthday celebrations with two family members, and we look forward to Christmas celebrations, all virtual this year, with family. Our current plan for New Year’s Eve is to test ourselves for COVID (damn you, Omicron!) then join a few similarly tested, double-vaccinated, and boostered friends for an outdoor New Year’s Eve gathering. And against my wishes, this group will tilt a glass at midnight Pacific time, though I would much prefer celebrating when the ball drops in Times Square, or even Nova Scotia. But to bed after that, as I have a 6,000-yard date with my crazy masters swimming friends at 10:00 AM on New Year’s Day!

As we celebrate in the darkness, I wish all of you the happiest (and safest) of holidays in this wonderful world, and I look forward to sharing thoughts with all of you in the lengthening days of 2022.


Photo by NASA/Space Place

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  1. Seth Finn says:

    As you well know Mike, many of us just don’t care, and didn’t even know the winter solstice just passed. And yet, I’m happy I know now, happy to have picked up a shred of astronomy knowledge that I would have had, had I paid just a little more attention to Astronomy 3 back in college.

    Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and here’s to a spectacular 2022, keep up the good work Mike, we’re getting smarter reading your work, whether we like it or not!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      See? Being force fed is better than not eating at all. That doesn’t sound so good when I write it, but you get the idea. Yes – Here’s to 2022! My next post will be on New Year’s Resolutions. I’m a big fan.

  2. Jayne Horowitz says:

    Loved this! I can’t wait for the soup recipes. Happy holidays!!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Jane – Thank you. Two of the recipes are already on They were also hyperlinked to the blog post. Happy cooking and thanjks for reading!
      – Mike

  3. Michelle Krzmarzick says:

    Look at you, still trying to teach us stuff in retirement. Looks like a day well spent! Happy Holidays to you and Jill!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      And to all of your family!

  4. Rose Ann Hansen says:

    Dear Mike,

    Love your post, as I do with all of them. Thank you for sharing.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Jill and your sons.

    Chrysanthemum !!


    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks for reading, RoseAnn! And I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying since 6th grade. Yes, RoseAnn, you can spell chrysanthemum, and I can barely say it. Merry Chrysanthemum Christmas! – Mike

      1. Rose Ann Hansen says:

        LOL…I seem to remember that chrysanthemum is the word that got us both in the 6th grade “boys against girls” spelling competitions sponsored by Sister Leticia. I could not spell it as well. That is why I remember it ! Merry In Between and Happy New Year!

  5. Pat Matthews says:

    Mike, Very nice blog post my brother. Very informative and impressive. Your swimming routine is amazing and inspiring. Please plan to stay at our house the next time you visit Little Rock: That “4:30 AM: (still dark) emptied the dishwasher and did my daily make the kitchen spotless ritual” will be greatly appreciated:). Hope you all had a great Christmas!!! Love, Pat

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I look forward to that opportunity. You hate to get out of a routine! Thanks, Pat!

  6. Thanks for being such a bright ray of sunshine to help us emerge from these cold, harsh, dark days of Malibu Winter. With your wisdom and inspiration I feel encouraged we will get through it.

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