December 21, 2018: What is the Winter Solstice?

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A Brief History

On December 21, 2018, at 5:23 pm (EST), the Northern half of the world will experience its annual Winter Solstice, so Happy Solstice Everybody!!!  This astronomical event marks the time each year when the Sun is at its lowest “excursion,” meaning the tilt of the Earth in relation to the Sun puts the direct rays of sunlight at the Tropic of Cancer, a line of latitude a little more than 23 degrees South of the Equator.  In the Southern Hemisphere, this event is their Summer Solstice.

Digging Deeper

The Winter Solstice marks the first day of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere, while simultaneously marking the first day of Summer in the Southern Hemisphere.  Our Summer Solstice occurs in turn usually on June 21st each year, which conversely is the Winter Solstice for the Southern Hemisphere.  The Winter Solstice marks the shortest “day” of the year, the day when we have the least amount of sunlight.  Every day after the Winter Solstice the amount of daylight we get each day gets a little bit longer, until reaching its peak at the Summer Solstice.  After the Summer Solstice, each day gets progressively shorter until at the Winter Solstice the hours and minutes of sunlight reach their minimum.

Winter solstice occurs in December for the northern hemisphere, and June for the southern hemisphere.

The mid-season periods between each Solstice is known as the Equinox, with the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox occurring on or about March 20th each year and the Autumnal (or Fall) Equinox coming on or about September 23rd each year.  The Vernal Equinox marks the first day of Spring, and the Autumnal Equinox marks the first day of Fall (or Autumn).  (The Chevrolet brand of General Motors makes a nice compact SUV/Crossover called the Equinox.)

People noticed the regularity of the Solstices and Equinoxes centuries ago, even back well into the BC era.  The Romans gave us the nomenclature we use today (“solstitium”) as far back as the 1st Century BC.  Other names for the events related to the relative position of the Sun and the Earth include June and December Solstice, Estival and Hibernal Solstice, Midsummer and Midwinter Solstice, and the more poetic sounding First Point of Cancer and First Point of Capricorn.  Despite the astrological sounding names of the last labels, the actual Solstices occur during the astrological signs of Taurus and Sagittarius.  The position of the constellations of stars in the night sky as they change with the seasons provided ancient civilizations with a reference point by which to keep track of celestial time, a kind of night sky calendar.  Of course, the position of the Sun and the apparent angle of the Sun’s rays also provided a way to keep track of when the seasons were progressing.

Mosaic of Christ as Sol in Mausoleum M in the Vatican Necropolis from the Late 3rd century.  Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”), originally a Syrian god, was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-275).  Because Sol’s holiday is traditionally celebrated on December 25, it has been speculated to be the reason behind Christmas‘s proximity to the solstice.

In days of yore the Solstice (especially the Winter Solstice) was cause for celebration during Pagan holidays.  The Romans celebrated Saturnalia.  Other religious holidays such as Easter and Passover are often timed near the Vernal Equinox, and the Christmas and Chanukah holidays are quite close to the Winter Solstice.  Native Americans (both North and South America), Asians, and Hindus all have Solstice/Equinox related holidays.  Some secular entities such as the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station celebrate the Winter Solstice in their Mid-Winter Celebration, and in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington they hold an annual Fremont Solstice Parade coinciding with the Summer Solstice.  The more recent “holidays” of Festivus (“for the rest of us”) and Kwanzaa may not be meant to coincide with the Winter Solstice, but instead to compete with religious late December holidays, but by default still occur close to the Winter Solstice.

We wish all of our valued readers and their friends and families a wonderful and happy Winter Solstice!  Enjoy all the other related holidays that occur this season and by all means drive safely!!!  For those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), take heart in knowing that every day from now until the Summer Solstice each day will have a bit more sunlight.  Enjoy!

Bright light therapy is a common treatment for seasonal affective disorder and for circadian rhythm sleep disorders.  Photograph by Lou Sander.

Questions for Students (and others): Did you know what the Solstice and Equinox are?  Did you ever hear that Christmas was arbitrarily given a date to compete with pagan solstice celebrations?  What is your favorite winter holiday? Would you like to see a national holiday for the Winter Solstice?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Edwards, Carolyn M. The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice. Da Capo Press, 2005.

Hislop, Alexander, et al. The Dark History of Christmas – An Anthology: The Pagan Origins of our Winter Festival. Amazon Digital Services, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Mark Grant of Sunrise at Stonehenge on the winter solstice in the mid 1980s, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.  You are free:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.