Around noon Saturday, something important happened, but you may not have noticed.
Planet Earth, slightly tilted on its axis, passed the point in its annual orbit at which the northern hemisphere tipped farthest away from the sun, producing the longest night and shortest day of the year. It was the winter solstice.
Today, daylight already is microscopically larger. The return of the sun has begun -- hurrah. Our local star gradually will climb higher in the sky, and daytime will lengthen.
In midsummer, when the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, warming solar radiation is received as long as 15 hours per day. But in the bleak midwinter, the opposite prevails: as little as nine hours of sunlight, at a lower angle.
Back in prehistoric times, northern people watched the sun sink in autumn, fearing the worsening chill and gloom. Then they cheered as the sun began to climb again. This happy turning point became a northern festival period, with bonfires and cheery lamps to brighten the darkness. Some 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, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Previously, the birth of Jesus had been observed at various other seasons. Ever since, Christian joy has been added to the age-old cheer of this period.
Today, electric holiday lights fend off the night, lifting people's spirits. The Coonskin Park display, the St. Albans Festival of Lights and many other government spectacles gladden the heart. Likewise, thousands of homes, businesses, churches and the like add to the merry dazzle. Part of the holiday thrill is to load children in the car and view the twinkling panorama.
Everyone who displays holiday lights gives a friendly gift to passersby. They augment the magic of this enchanted season -- a yearly event caused by the planet's small tilt on its axis.