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Merry and bright: Mark the calendar for winter solstice and starry nights

The sun sets so early and rises late so even though it’s cold out, you can get out early in the evening with your family and stargaze, King says. Special to The Forum1 / 2
The constellation Orion becomes extremely visible during the winter months. Special to The Forum2 / 2

The 2016 winter solstice will occur on December 21 at exactly 4:44 a.m. The solstice marks the beginning of winter when the sun has reached the lowest point in the sky, thus creating the shortest day of the year.

"At exactly 4:45 a.m., the sun will start going north again, and the sunlight will increase," says Bob King, photo editor at the Duluth News Tribune and writer of the Astro Bob blog.

"The winter solstice is just a point in time," he says. "It's a time of change and the sun will return and start moving north immediately after."

King says the winter, although frigid, is actually one of the best times to admire the night sky. "The sun sets so early and rises late so even though it's cold out, you can get out early in the evening with your family and stargaze," he says.

Apart from the holiday season, winter provides few opportunities for excitement. The cold days seem to drag on, and while the shortest day of the year may not seem exciting, the astronomical phenomenon is a momentous event.

"Daylight has a profound influence on people's lives ... and it's a little depressing during the winter months. We love sunlight," King says. "The winter solstice allows us to start looking forward to summer."

For ancient civilizations that had difficulty surviving the harsh winter months, the winter solstice was a time of rejoicing and celebration.

Modernization has made survival much easier for humans, but people around the world still celebrate the winter solstice with festivities and rituals.

In Poland, people celebrate a tradition known as Gody which involves a time of forgiveness and sharing of food. Pakistan throws a seven-day festival called Chaomos when people undergo a purification process. Mayan Indians honor the sun God with a ritual known as Palo Volador or "flying pole dance." Many other modern cultures celebrate the day with feasts and triumph.

For those who aren't willing to stay up until 4:44 a.m. to celebrate the coming of daylight, take advantage of these other astronomical events happening throughout the next few months.

Dec. 22

An Urside meteor shower is a minor meteor shower that will contain up to 10 meteors per hour, but still a great sight to see.

Jan. 4

Quadrantids meteor shower is an above average meteor shower that will contain up to 40 meteors per hour at its peak.

Jan. 12

This will be the best time to view Venus is at its greatest eastern elongation because it will be at the highest point in the horizon. Look for the planet in the western sky after sunset.

Jan. 19

The best time to view Mercury is at its greatest western elongation because it will also be at the highest point in the horizon. Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

Don't forget to mark the calendar for December 21 and remember to enjoy the winter for its spectacular skies.

"This time of year brings out the brightest grouping of stars early in the evening," King says. "The beauty and brightness that comes during winter is something to appreciate."