Countless winter solstice enthusiasts will partake in a variety of rituals and activities to commemorate the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
This year, the solstice occurs on December 21 in the U.S. and December 22 in Europe, signifying the astronomical onset of winter. It’s worth noting that meteorological seasons place the start of winter from early December through February.
On the winter solstice, the Earth’s tilt away from the sun reaches its maximum, resulting in a noticeable lack of direct sunlight. The intriguing dance of the sun has inspired the construction of monumental structures such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland.
Today, these sites will attract thousands of individuals eager to witness the solstice.
For those curious about the significance of this celestial event, here’s what you need to know.
What exactly is the winter solstice?
The official marker of the change of seasons, the solstices, occur twice a year in June and December.
The day that the sun is furthest from the earth, the winter solstice, occurs when it is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn, which is a line that passes between Chile and Australia and is situated 23.5 degrees south of the equator. Lower temperatures and reduced light are brought forth by the distance.
On the day of this astronomical occurrence, the sun is at its lowest height and remains in the same position for several days.
The term “solstice” derives from the Latin terms “sol,” which means “sun,” and “stit,” which comes from the word “sistere,” which means “to stand still.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “solstice” was originally used in the fourteenth century.
The winter solstice brings the shortest day of the year to the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year to the Southern Hemisphere. NASA reports that daylight hours for people living north of the equator are less than twelve hours.
The North will have longer days and shorter nights following the winter solstice until the summer solstice, which falls on June 20, 2024.
When does the winter solstice fall on?
Every year, this astronomical phenomenon occurs at a different time and date, however it normally occurs around December 21 or 22. 21st December at 10:27 p.m. The winter solstice in 2023 falls on December 1, Eastern Time.
Why does the winter solstice occur?
Infographics and visual representations illustrating the winter solstice on December 21-22.
The occurrence of the winter solstice twice annually is attributed to Earth’s axial tilt of 23.4 degrees concerning its orbit around the Sun, as explained by NASA. As the Southern Hemisphere faces the Sun, entering summer, the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter, and vice versa.
This axial tilt is instrumental in driving Earth’s seasons, resulting in uneven distribution of sunlight across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres throughout the year.
From March to September, the Northern Hemisphere receives more daylight, leading to spring and summer, while the period from September to March witnesses longer nights, ushering in autumn and winter.
Does the winter solstice signify the official commencement of winter?
Infographics depicting the summer and winter solstices, as well as the autumnal and spring equinoxes in the Northern Hemisphere. Sun path diagram or day arc for the year.
Although the winter and summer solstices are commonly considered the official starting points of their respective seasons, the actual commencement depends on the chosen definition. Seasons can be defined either astronomically or meteorologically.
Astronomical seasons are determined by Earth’s position during its orbit around the Sun, whereas meteorological seasons are based on annual temperature cycles. Consequently, the start and end dates of the four seasons vary depending on the method employed.
While the exact start times differ between the two methods, they generally align within the same time frames.
The astronomical approach designates a specific date within four months to mark the beginning of each season, while the meteorological method categorizes seasons into three-month groups.
Astronomically, winter in the Northern Hemisphere commences in December, spring in March, summer in June, and autumn in September.
Meteorologically, winter in the Northern Hemisphere spans December, January, and February; spring includes March, April, and May; summer consists of June, July, and August; and fall encompasses September, October, and November.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac, recognized as the “calendar of the heavens,” adopts the astronomical definition to delineate the onset of each season.