The winter solstice occurs on December 21 making it an ideal time to take a break from the pre-Christmas rush and reflect on our place in the universe.
What is the Winter Solstice?
Having to do with Earth’s tilted axis and rotation around the sun, the winter solstice occurs when the North Pole is tilting furthest away from the sun. The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. Its companion is the summer solstice marking the longest day and shortest night of the year.
In the Northern Hemisphere, we experience the winter solstice in December (20, 21, 22, or 23), while in the Southern Hemisphere it occurs in June. The winter solstice is also known as midwinter, which makes sense to me as it occurs in the middle of the coldest time of the year. In some countries, like the United States, the winter solstice marks the first calendar day of winter.
The word solstice has its origins in Latin and Old French combining sol (sun) with stit (stopped, stationary) to form solstitium and later the Middle English term solstice. The Earth does not actually stand still at the winter solstice. After the summer solstice, the days become shorter and shorter but as the winter solstice draws near the daily incremental change decreases until it reaches zero. Then the process reverses itself until the summer solstice.
The winter solstice is a harbinger of spring, birth, and new growth.
Winter Solstice Cultural Significance
In the Northern Hemisphere, cold and hunger were the constant companions of our ancestors from the time after the fall harvest to the spring growing season. Depending on where people lived, it would already be cold in October. If the harvest or hunting had been poor, people would worry about their food supplies lasting until spring.
The winter solstice was a momentous occurrence for our forebearers because it was a sign that they had made it to the zenith of winter and now they could look forward to longer and warmer days and that spring was ahead. The winter solstice was sort of an astronomical equivalent of “Hang in there everyone, things are going to get better.”
For thousands of years, people around the world have observed the winter solstice with rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations. Some of our ambitious ancestors erected monuments orienting them to coincide with the winter solstice sunrise or sunset, like Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England.
Nowadays, some celebrants travel to ancient sites to participate in winter solstice ceremonies, while others attend spiritual gatherings closer to home or take part in activities involving fire or ringing bells. The essential ingredient seems to be taking time out from our daily routines to honor Earth and reflect on our place in the solar system.
Take Time to Pause and Reflect
Our society seems to be perennially busy, constantly in motion, with people rarely sitting quietly and enjoying the moment.
Think about it. How often do you have the chance to just be?
By December 21, I suspect you and many other people might enjoy a respite from the pressures of year-end work deadlines, school final exams, and Christmas preparations.
Let’s take advantage of the winter solstice by pushing the pause button on our busy lives and expending some time reflecting on this wondrous planet we all call home and pondering our place in the universe.
“From out of the darkness and cold, the light…and hope return.” —Unknown
- 4th of July – Be a Green Citizen
- Everyone is an Environmentalist
- First Day of Spring – Stop and Smell the Roses
- National Geographic – Solstice a Cause for Celebration Since Ancient Times
- Time and Date – Winter Solstice – Shortest Day of the Year
- Wikipedia – Winter Solstice