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7 Fun Facts about the Winter Solstice

Astronomical winter begins at the winter solstice, the year’s shortest day. This means days get longer during winter—very slowly at first, but at ever-larger daily intervals as the March equinox approaches, heralding the start of spring.

1. The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year

The winter solstice occurs anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is that in the typical year, the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth is different from the calendar year. Locations closer to the poles experience larger differences in day length throughout the year, so winter days are shorter there. For example, in Toronto, the shortest day is just under 8 hours and 56 minutes long, but in Miami, approximately 1200 miles farther south, it lasts about 10 hours and 32 minutes. Click here for the winter solstice calendar.

2. The winter solstice happens at a specific moment and time

Not only does the Solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed farthest away from the sun on the 23.5° tilt of the Earth’s axis. Although the Solstice is marked by a whole day on the calendar, it’s just the brief moment when the sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn that the event occurs. But regardless of where you live, the Solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere

Daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It’s no wonder that the day of the Solstice is referred to in some cultures as the “shortest day of the year.” In some places like Washington, D.C., you might see about 9 hours of sunlight. In other places like Finland, you might get about 5 to 6 hours of light. And in some other places, for example, in Alaska, you may not have a sunrise at all until about mid-January. The South Pole, on the other hand, maybe basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won’t set until March. Click here to see the December Solstice Count Down near you.

4. The word Solstice translates to “Sun Stand Still

The word Solstice comes from the Latin term “solstitium,” containing “sol,” which means “sun,” and the past participle stem of “sistere,” meaning “to make a stand.” This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the Solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the Solstice from the position of space and of the Earth relative to the sun. But in the past, earlier people thought more about the sun’s trajectory and how long it stayed in the sky or what sort of light the Sun cast.

5. Stonehenge is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice

The primary axis of Stonehenge is oriented to the setting sun. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of solstice enthusiasts gather at Stonehenge every year to celebrate the occasion (

6. Some say that dark spirits will walk the Earth on the winter solstice

In some traditions, people are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore as well as in Zoroastrian lore, which holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night.

7. Winter’s coldest days happen after the Solstice

January and February are the coldest days in the Northern Hemisphere despite receiving more sunlight than in December’s short days. Why? This is because the Earth takes in and releases heat. The planet absorbs heat during the summer months and releases it gradually throughout the fall and into the winter; it doesn’t fully cool down until January or February. By then, snow is falling in many areas, creating a reflective shield against solar radiation. So, in midwinter, our stores of heat have run out, and the warmth of the sun is not being absorbed as easily.
In the past, the Solstice may have been a special moment of the annual cycle for some cultures, even during Neolithic times. Many Astronomical events were often used to guide activities, such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops, and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. And many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months.” Because the winter solstice is the reversal of the sun’s ebbing in the sky, in ancient times, it was seen as the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun or of a sun god. To many, the Winter Solstice is viewed as a time to celebrate the death and rebirth of new beginnings.

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