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BLOOMINGTON - For those of you who have shivered, shoveled, scraped and salted in recent weeks, here's some news: Winter just arrived.

"I heard that (Wednesday was the start of winter). But I say 'It's winter when it's cold,'" said Dennis Brown, waiting at the bus stop at Front and Center streets in Bloomington.

"I can deal with the cold, as long as the sun's shining like now," he said, a few minutes before catching the bus to his job at Hardees' Restaurant.

Well, Brown's in luck. Longer days are on the way.

The winter solstice, which was Wednesday, is the day with the shortest amount of daylight, so days now with get longer until the summer solstice, around June 21. While meteorologists reckon the seasons differently, the solstice has been an important day for beginnings and endings since ancient days.

A solstice marks the sun's maximum distance north or south of the celestial equator. In December, that means the sun is as far south as it will go, starting winter in the Northern Hemisphere and summer in the Southern Hemisphere. In late June, the sun with be as far north as it goes, starting our summer.

But even professionals in meteorology don't consider the solstice the start of the season.

"I tell everyone even though it's on the calendar that way, our winter outlooks really begin with Dec. 1," said Kirk Huettl of the National Weather Service in Lincoln.

For weather service professionals, winter months include the entire months of December, January and February, he said. The coldest temperatures of the season usually arrive in mid- to late January.

The earliest evidence of people marking the winter solstice is at Ireland's Newgrange, said David MacDonald of Carlock. The retired Illinois State University history professor said the ancient tomb dates back about 5,000 years.

The walkway to the tomb is illuminated by the winter sun for just 17 minutes Dec. 19 to 23 each year.

"It shows they knew about the position of the sun. And that although there was an association with death (in the tomb), there also was a hope for a new beginning, with the sunlight," he said.

In the Roman Empire, people exchanged gifts in the days surrounding the solstice, and held the major Saturnalia festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn, said MacDonald.

Nowadays, with a dependence on natural light undone by electricity, modern humans aren't so in tune with the astronomical changes in the calendar, he said.

For Nella Wilson, waiting for a bus to take her to her job at The Coffeehouse in Normal, winter kicks in when the temperature drops below 30 degrees. "Or maybe the first snowfall," she added.

Though most Central Illinois residents don't recognize the solstice as more than a line on the wall calendar, Wilson said she knew of some college students marking the occasion.

"I actually got invited to a winter solstice formal," she said, laughing. The party's host has a penchant for off-beat themed parties, she said.

Huettl said the National Weather Service predicts light rain in the area Friday and snow flurries this weekend. But Central Illinois shouldn't expect a white Christmas, he said.

Snow now on the ground likely will melt today and Friday, he said. The weekend's dusting probably won't stick.

"We need an inch of snow on the ground at 6 a.m. Christmas morning to classify the day as a white Christmas," said Huettl.

About a third of Christmases are white in Bloomington-Normal. The last was recorded in 2002, with a 3-inch snowfall.

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