Sunday, December 22, 2013

Winter Solstice

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the moment the sun reverses its descent into darkness and begins its return toward spring. From this moment, the days grow longer and the nights shorter. 

Ancient cultures imbued this event with deep significance, including early Christians who aligned the birth of Jesus to coincide with the solstice. Two thousand years ago, the solstice fell on December 25th, so that was the day chosen to observe the birth of God's son as the divine light that returns to the world. 

Indigenous cultures also observed the solstices. Language provides an insight into the cultural practices of our ancestors. 

Chris Parkin recently offered an Okanagan rendition of the winter solstice: sxʔim'łt'ət'q'asq't. This inspired me to find a Spokane version. 

According to Ross (2011), "Both the equinoxes and solstices, the longest and shortest of days, were recognized [by the Spokane] as a type of calendar (snsay'n'ʔasq'tn'), which delineated the four seasons of the year" (p. 737). He also wrote: 

The Spokan divided the year into lunar months, each of which commenced with a full moon and ended with the moon's waning. They also recognized the winter solstice (sk'ʷsus - "hunting drives" or hoy yaʔk'ʷaqs łuʔ sʔanłq) and summer solstice (sʔanłq or hoy yaʔk'ʷaqs łuʔ sʔistč), which commenced on a full moon (pp. 737-738).

These phrases seem to have both descriptive and symbolic meanings. For example, the phrase, "hoy yaʔk'ʷaqs łuʔ sʔanłq" (winter solstice) seems to say, "The summer has crossed the road." They seemed to recognize the opposite season crossing back.

An unpublished Spokane dictionary has a word for the longest day of the year: čʔosšnasq't, but not for the shortest. This is similar to Father Giorda's account when he wrote (1879): Usshinaskat (p. 85), which in modern orthography would be written as usšnasq't

Father Giorda's account of the shortest day was less obvious. He wrote: Chlguuzaskat. In modern writing this might be čłxʷcasq't or čxʷcasq't but I am not positive. Perhaps someone reading this post can say for sure.  

* Note: Elmendorf placed the beginning of seasons at the new moon. 

These photographs were taken 
in my yard on the winter solstice. 


Giorda, J. (1879). A Dictionary of the Kalispel of Flat-Head Indian Language. St. Ignatius, Montana: Missionaries of the Society of Jesus.
Ross, J. A. (2011). The Spokan Indians. Spokane, WA: Michael J. Ross.

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