On December 22 at 6:10 a.m., we reach the winter solstice, the official end of autumn and either the shortest day or the longest night of the year, depending on whether you're an optimist or a pessimist and whether the solar system looks half full or half empty. At the moment, the earth, tilted on its axis at 23 1/2 degrees, shows the least of its face to the sun and demurely crosses its legs at the ankle -- if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you live in Australia, it's a different matter, as might be expected in a country founded as a penal colony and riddled with kangaroos.

In the far north, the solstice inaugurates a period of 24 hours of darkness punctuated by brisk sales of flashlight batteries and an outbreak of bedroom jokes by arctic comedians. Ancient Eskimo myths account for this phenomenon in several ways. In one version, the sun is swallowed by an enormous polar bear for particularly ursine reasons; in another the sun is punted far to the south by the kicker on a walrus football team. The hardy inhabitants of the ice pack have charming fables to explain nearly everything -- except the sniffles. No one is positive about that.

Modern science offers a more precise description of the solstice, a celestial event that can be illustrated using a grapefruit to represent the sun and an orange to represent the earth. Plunge a cinnamon stick through the orange to indicate its axis. To complete this model, use a lime to stand for Saturn, an apple for Mercury, and a plm for Neptune. Peel all plantes and bake in a pre-heated oven at 375 degree for 90 minutes. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, this display provides a tasty snack when friends drop by on a frosty evening.

Solstice in New York, like Moonlight in Vermont, is more than a great song: It's an event beloved by millions, marked by heart-warming customs celebrating the shortest day of the year. I recall boyhood days when I joined my schoolmates in placing flowers on the grave of Michael Dunn, performing the Minute Waltz, and enrolling in secretarial school where we gaily studied shorthand into the wee hours.

With the pressures of last-minute shopping and the deplorable commercialation of the season, many people develop Christmas malaise. Thus, it may be time to return to the obserbation of that more ancient festival; it may be time to put the "Sol" back into solstice. Several points recommend this substitute celeration. For one, the solstice remain noncommercial -- like Channel 26, but without those annoying fund-raising drives. There are no solstice cards; there is no solstice shopping. There are no associated TV specials, no "Solstice With the King Family" or "Andy Williams Sings a Song of Solstice." Furthermore, since it's a nondenomenational event, this holiday spares Jewish families an annual spiritual crisis: Should we let the kids have a solstice tree?

An ancient festival of nature, the solstice marks the change of seasons, an occasion important to all people, particularly if they've bought the new clothes.Celebration of this day formally declares the arrival of winter. (Incidentally, "winter" is an Anglo-Saxon term, like "spats." It's derived from a nasalized form of the Indo-European root wed-, wod-, ud- -- found in "water," "otter," and "udder" -- meaning "wet." Etymologists suggest that the word was nasalized because each year all the Saxons came down with the flu, it being before the invention of Contac.)

For rural folk, the approaching solstice indicates the need to complete preparations for winter, gathering nuts or taking fur coats out of the vault, depending upon you income and species. With Jack Frost nipping at his nose (and Jack Heating Bills at his wallet), the New England framer stacks cordwood out back. On the Great Plains, the air resounds with the cry of "Storm windows!" City folk too must prepare for a visit from old Man Winter, a close personal friend of old Man River and a heck of a nice metaphor in his own right. Consult the following checklist to be sure you have complied with the necessities of urban winterizing. PETS: By now you should have poured fresh antifreeze into your cat; otherwise you'll have to jump-start it on frigid mornings. AUDIO: A stocking cap slipped over your portable radio when you take it for a stroll will provide required protection, keeping the music from icing over and making it tough for your neighbors to be certain who's making all the racket. PLANT: Green living things hate the cold (and, to their credit, eschew health clubs). If possible, send your ferns on a Caribbean cruise for the duration. If you can't afford a botanical vacation, dress plants right for health. Wrap a tiny scarf around the stem and slip little mittens over the leaves. Sure, it's expensive but you'll save a fortune in medical bills. RECREATIONAL VEHICLES: You're already overdue for installing chains or studded snow tires on your roller skates. Miscellaneous: A little weatherstripping on your shoes will cut fuel bills. Install fiberglass insulation on all magazines and newspapers. Take time to caulk all food processors, preventing vegetable freeze-up. Plan ahead -- there are only 72 more shopping days until the Vernal Equinox.