Back in June, we celebrated the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. Today is the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. It sometimes gets overlooked amid the chaos of the holiday season, but it’s still an interesting occurrence. Here’s what you need to know about the solstice.
1. Today is the big day.
The winter solstice date varies every year, ranging anywhere between Dec. 20-23, though the 21st and 22nd are by far the most common dates. It’s the shortest day and longest night. In terms of daylight, the Winter Solstice in Houston is 3 hours, 49 minutes shorter than on the Summer Solstice in June. Alaska won’t have a sunrise at all, and actually hasn’t since mid-November; its next sunrise will be in late January.
2. The solstice is actually a brief, specific instant, and not the entire day.
The solstice corresponds to the moment the North Pole is the furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis and the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. Regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone. This year, that will be at 4:22 p.m. local Central time.
3. Ancient cultures celebrate the Winter Solstices as a time of death and rebirth.
With the “death of the light” and serious threat of starvation over the winter months, Scandinavian and Germanic pagans slaughtered animals and lit fires as a symbolic way to welcome backlight. Ancient Romans celebrated a midwinter festival of Saturnalia to honor the agricultural god Saturn, and it became a widespread revelry of debauchery where societal roles were overturned, and servants were allowed to insult their masters. The Iranian festival of Yalda is also celebrated to herald the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. And beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night occur in Celtic and Germanic folklore.
4. Big events have happened on the Winter Solstice.
The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth on Dec. 21, 1620. In 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium. And the Apollo 8 spacecraft, which became the first manned moon mission, launched on December 21, 1968.
5. Solstice translates to “sun stands still.”
The word is derived from the Latin scientific term solstitium, where “sol” means “sun” and the past participle stem of “sister” means “to make stand.” This is because the sun’s position in the sky, relative to the horizon at noon, increases and decreases throughout the year but appears to pause on the days around the solstice. Also, some thought the world would end (or some cataclysmic event would happen) on the 2012 winter solstice, as it corresponded to the end date of a 5,126-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Mayans. But the Earth continues to spin around the sun, and we look forward to longer days ahead!