Most are vaguely aware of the arrival of the winter solstice, amid the holiday season whirl, but how much do you know about it? If you’re a winter lover or just want it to go away, here’s 10 things to note — or even celebrate — around the shortest day of the year.
1. THE WINTER SOLSTICE HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21 IN 2020.
The winter solstice date varies from year to year, and the occur anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the most common dates being the 21st or 22nd. This is because the tropical year – the time it takes for the sun to return to the same position relative to Earth – is different from the calendar year. The next solstice that will occur on December 20 will not occur until 2080, and the next solstice of December 23 will not occur until 2303.
2. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO “SUN STANDS STILL.”
Solstice comes from the Latin scientific term solstitium, comprising sol, meaning “sun,” and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning “to make stand.” This is because the location of the sun in the sky relative to the horizon at midday, which increases and decreases throughout the year, tends to pause in the days following the solstice. In modern times we look at the solstice phenomena from the perspective of space, and the Earth relative to the sun. Nevertheless, earlier people thought of the direction of the sun, how long it remained in the sky and what kind of light is emitted.
3. THE WINTER SOLSTICE OCCURS AT A PARTICULAR, BRIEF MOMENT.
Not only does the solstice occur on a single day, but it also happens at a specific time of day, referring to the moment the North Pole is positioned furthest away from the sun on the axis of the Earth’s 23.5-degree inclination. Even this is the moment that the sun shines directly over the Capricorn Tropic. This time comes at 10:02 a.m. in 2020 UTC (Universal Coordinated Time) on 21 December. The Solstice will occur at 5:02 a.m. for those on Eastern Standard Time on 21 December. And no matter where you live, the solstice is happening for everybody on the planet at the same moment.
4. EARLY CULTURES SAW THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A PERIOD OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.
The seeming death of the light and the very real danger of famine during the winter months must have weighed heavily on early cultures, which held numerous solstice ceremonies and rituals that were intended to mark the sun’s return and hope for a new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans ignited fires, and Yule logs may have been burned as a symbolic way of welcoming the light back. They slaughtered cattle and other livestock around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic festival, Alban Arthan reveres the Old Sun’s death and the New Sun’s creation.
5. THE SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.
On December 21, 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth to found a community which would allow them to worship freely. Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium the same day in 1898, ushering in an atomic age. And the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched on 21 December 1968, becoming the first manned moon mission.
6. THE WINTER SOLSTICE DENOTES THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.
As most are keenly aware, as the winter solstice progresses, daylight hours become shorter and shorter and then begin to gradually lengthen. It’s no wonder that in some cultures the day of the solstice is referred to as the “shortest day of the year” or “winter extreme.” New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunshine, compared with 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, gets 5 hours and 49 minutes of light.
7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.
The megalithic monument’s primary axis is oriented toward the setting sun, while Newgrange, another building constructed at the same time as Stonehenge, is aligned with the sunrise in the winter solstice. Many have theorized that the sun’s location was of religious importance to the people who constructed Stonehenge, while other hypotheses suggest that the monument is designed around natural features that correlate with it. Stonehenge’s meaning is still under question, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans and other forms of enthusiasts gather there to mark the occasion each year.
8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.
The holiday, which began as a festival to honour the agrarian god Saturn, was held in 497 BCE to celebrate the dedication of his temple. This soon became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery during which social roles were reversed, with masters serving their slaves and servants being permitted to taunt their masters. Saturnalia’s reversals also involved mask-wearing and play-acting, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Throughout the Roman Empire, Saturnalia was slowly replaced by Christmas but many of its rituals remain as traditions of Christmas.
9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.
The Yalda Iranian Festival is held on the year’s longest night. It heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient god of the light, and his victory over obscurity in pre-Islamic times. Zoroastrian mythology claims that evil spirits roam the Earth and Ahriman’s destructive spirit powers are strongest in this long night. People are encouraged to remain in each other’s company most of the night, sleeping, reading, and exchanging poetry and stories, to avoid any encounters with dark forces. Beliefs in Celtic and Germanic myths regarding the appearance of evil on the longest night are also echoed.
10. December 21, 2012, End of The World.
December 21, 2012, corresponds to the date 220.127.116.11.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.
11. EVERY PLANET HAS A WINTER SOLSTICE IN EARTH’s SOLAR SYSTEM.
In Earth’s solar system the planets also have solstices, equinoxes, and seasons. Every earth is revolving on a tilted axis, and this is why the weather shifts. But the bigger the tilt over the seasons, the bigger the difference in temperature. For example, Uranus is inclined by 82 degrees. And according to NASA, the planet is struggling with 20-year-long seasons and strange weather.