CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Grade school children are taught the cause of summer and winter: Because Earth's axis is tilted, the Northern Hemisphere leans toward the sun in summer, enjoying direct warm radiation as much as 15 hours a day. But in winter, when the planet is on the opposite side of its orbit, the north is tipped away from the sun, receiving less-direct sunlight as little as nine hours a day.
This darkest, coldest season is upon us. Friday morning, Planet Earth passed its winter solstice -- the point when the north's tilt away from the sun is greatest -- and now days already are getting a tiny bit longer.
In prehistoric time, northern people watched the sun sink in autumn, fearing the growing chill and gloom. But they were elated when the sun began to climb again. This return-of-the-sun time always has brought northern festivals, with bonfires and cheery lamps to conquer darkness. Many ancient cultures held sun god celebrations.
In the fourth century, the pagan sun holiday became Christmas. Pope Julius I set Dec. 25 for the nativity, the Catholic Encyclopedia says. Before then, the birth of Jesus had been marked at various other times. Ever since, Christian joy has joined age-old celebrations of hope for escape from dark and cold.
Nowadays, billions of electric lights fend off the night, cheering everyone. Coonskin Park lights, the St. Albans Festival of Lights, the renowned Oglebay Park display at Wheeling and many other government-sponsored spectacles gladden the heart. Even better, thousands of homes, businesses, churches and offices also help make a merry dazzle. The holiday thrill includes loading children into the car to view the shiny panorama.Everyone who provides holiday lights gives a friendly gift to neighbors and passers-by. They help spread the magic of this enchanted season.