Winter Solstice stargazing in the city
Updated: Aug 30, 2020
As the evenings began to cool, we started looking out for something to use as a backyard fire-pit. We hadn’t managed to find anything at our local ‘tip shop’, and the beautiful handcrafted ones from local metal workers were out of our current price range. So, on the first ‘cold’ day of the year (after our morning of kite flying), we headed down to the hardware store to see what they had to offer (I don’t actually recommend this model, it’s just what they had in stock and so we’re using it).
We’ve got into a dry season habit of Sunday evening pizza and marshmallows around the fire, with a trip down to the front driveway to look at the stars before we head up to bed. So, when the Winter Solstice fell on a Sunday this year, and the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance held a Guinness World Record attempt to map light pollution on the darkest night of the year, we knew how we were going to celebrate.
I’ve always been reluctant to celebrate the solstices in the tropics, as our seasons just don’t match up with the ‘usual’ (European/North American) activities that you see shared across the internet and in most children’s books. A winter solstice bonfire is finally a tradition that matches us perfectly in the middle of the dry season. Whilst it wasn’t really a bonfire, as we were in our backyard, didn’t have much wood, and wanted the fire to go out by the time we went to look at the stars and measure light pollution, it’s something we can keep in mind for future years (maybe we can go camping somewhere).
In the past, we have always noted each solstice, as a mark of when the sun starts moving back to the other side of the house (our house runs east-west so there is a marked change in sun/shade in the garden throughout the year as the sun moves from the south to the north side and back again). As we’re in the tropics, our hours of daylight don’t differ significantly throughout the year (our longest day is only 1 hour 28 minutes longer than the shortest day). I seem to recall last year’s summer solstice coincided with a sunset Christmas concert down at the beach. By the time we take into account our location in the southern hemisphere, where we’re already not celebrating Christmas around midwinter or Easter in spring (or the Chinese ‘Spring Festival’ in spring, for that matter, too), and then add in the tropical seasons, it all seems a bit much to integrate, especially for very young children.
After checking for the moon, the first thing I look for in the night sky is the Southern Cross, so it was fitting that the Dark Sky survey centred on this constellation. The Southern Cross is the constellation pictured on the Australian and New Zealand flags, and can be used to find south. The method I use is one that incorporates the two ‘pointers’, Alpha Centauri, the star closest to Earth (after the sun), and Beta Centauri (also known as Hadar). I only recently learnt that the pointers as we see them aren’t in fact individual stars, but each is a cluster of 2-3 stars. We’ve also recently enjoyed looking out for Jupiter and Saturn, as our current ginger cat is called Jupi(ter) and the cat we had before him was Saturn (named as he was sitting on the verandah in the place our sky app was telling us was the location of Saturn, he was also a ginger cat patterned in rings and spots).
The winter solstice Dark Sky survey involved watching a few short videos and answering multiple choice questions (we did this whilst toasting marshmallows around the fire) then, once the fire had died down, we went to a darker part of the garden to see how many stars we could see. Despite some late afternoon smoke haze, bright balcony lights shining from a house across the road, and a streetlight opposite, we could still make out all five stars of the Southern Cross. We could also see parts of the Milky Way from the darkest corner of our yard near the sandpit, but couldn’t see anywhere near as many stars as we would see camping in the middle of nowhere on a clear night.
We have used glow-in-the-dark stickers to create our own Southern Cross and pointers along our passageway (aligned to point south, of course), as well as a meteor shower on the opposing wall. We have the planets of the solar system hanging in order away from the sun (ceiling light), the smoke alarm can be some sort of spacecraft. The ‘broader universe’ takes up the rest of the passageway and spills into the kids’ bedroom and the toilet. I loved having glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling as a child, my parents say they can still see them glowing despite being painted over a couple of times. We had originally planned to hang the planets in the kids’ room, but I couldn’t work out how to fit them around the ceiling fan. Now, our rather uninspiring passageway looks much more interesting, I think this is a much more effective way of displaying them than in a bedroom. X asks about the planets all the time, and we’ll often ‘fly’ either child ‘through space’ on our shoulders.
We picked up a picture book that introduces space and the planets not long after we’d done our decorating, and a friend gifted him a lovely book about the moon for Christmas. It really is a never-ending topic, leading to discussion of the positioning of the Earth, moon and sun and how they create night and day and the phases of the moon (we’ve demonstrated this a few times with our globe and a torch (flashlight). I am currently looking out for a set of boxes to create our own ‘cosmic nesting boxes’, I think these are a great tangible way to help young children understand their place in the universe (and if they’re not a hit, they can always just use them for nesting, stacking and building).
We’ve recently been noticing how the phase of the moon affects the tides, too, on our frequent trips to the beach, and I’ve found the local public health department even forecasts likely mosquito activity in our area based on the moon and tides. X has recently been asking a lot of questions about how the sea connects us to other places, and where do all the sea animals go when the tide goes out? He’s also been thinking about how it’s day in some places and night in others, and asking whether or not there is a point in time where we can see the moon at the same time as his grandparents in England. I also recently purchased some seeds from a local organic grower, who suggests planting at the new moon, which seems to be a common permaculture principle that I plan on researching further.
I think pondering our place in the universe, how big it is, how it began, what was there before the universe existed, what a ‘light year’ really means and how old the starlight we see is, and so forth, is a fascinating introduction to scientific thinking and the impossibility of knowing everything. People are naturally drawn to examining the night sky and wondering what’s ‘out there’, stories of the stars and the moon appear in many traditional cultures around the world, and have held great significance for different people in different times.
So, it seems we have a new tradition (and, now I’ve written it down, I can actually remember to continue this tradition in future years, thus making it a tradition). Winter solstice fire and stargazing!