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Winter Solstice: 6 Questions

Eileen Ybarra, Librarian III, Electronic Resources,
An eastern-hemisphere view showing noon in the Central European time zone on the day of winter solstice (on northern hemisphere - this is summer solstice on southern hemisphere). Wikimedia Commons
An eastern-hemisphere view showing noon in the Central European time zone on the day of winter solstice on northern hemisphere. Wikimedia Commons

1) What is the Winter Solstice?

It is the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

2) Why is there a Winter Solstice?

The December Solstice marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere and the begining of summer in the southern hemisphere. Because the Earth orbits the sun on a tilted axis, the Northern Hemisphere gets less exposure to direct sunlight over the course of a day between September and March. During the rest of the year, the north gets more direct sunlight and the Southern Hemisphere gets less - this is why we have seasons.  In the Northern Hemisphere, peak sunlight usually occurs on June 20, 21, or 22 of any given year. That’s the northern hemisphere's Summer Solstice. On December 21, 22, or 23 the Northern Hemisphere hits peak darkness — that’s our Winter Solstice. In the north, the Winter Solstice day has the shortest length of time between sunrise and sunset and fewest hours of daylight. This year Winter Solstice is on December 21.

3) Is the Winter Solstice the coldest day of the year?

Just because the Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, it doesn't mean it's the coldest. in fact, because the oceans are slow to heat and cool, in December they still retain some warmth from summer, delaying the coldest of winter days for another month and a half.

4) Does Stonehenge have a connection to the Winter Solstice?

"The solstice may have been a special moment of the annual cycle for some cultures even during neolithic times. 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. Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England...It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, i.e. its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons." Source: Winster Solstice - Wikipedia

Stonehenge at dawn on winter solstice. A large gathering of people are there to celebrate this event.

Stonehenge at dawn on the Winter Solstice of December 21, 2012. Photograph by Mike Peel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

5) What are some other cultural celebrations of the Winter Solstice?

Here are a few examples

  • Ireland: In Ireland, a huge tomb-shaped stone known as Newgrange has more than 5,000 years of history. In the 1960s, archeologists found that during the Winter Solstice, the sun’s rays traveled across a 62-foot passageway, through a perfectly positioned window, to a chamber where the ashes and bones of the dead were placed. Today, people will participate in an annual lottery so they can gather outside the tomb. and bang drums to greet the sun.
  • China: The Dōngzhì Festival. In China, the festival is designed to allow people to spend time with their families and eat lavish meals while also honoring more daylight hours
  • Japan: Each year for Touji (Winter Solstice) many people light bonfires, many of them on Mount Fuji, to encourage the sun’s return. Additionally, taking a hot bath with the citrus fruit yuzu on Touji is believed to help ward off colds. 
  • Iran: Yaldā Night/Shab-e Yalda/Shab-e Chelleh/Yalda. Yalda is a winter solstice celebration. The longest and darkest night of the year is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry until after midnight. It is known as a Persian solstice celebration.

A table cloth with a variety of Yalda favorites taken

A table cloth with a variety of Yalda celebration foods. Photograph by Eliza Tasbihi. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

6) Where can I learn more about cultural celebrations of the Winter Solstice? 

Check out some of our books below on traditional Winter Solstice celebrations from around the world: 

Winter Solstice Reads

The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas
Matthews, John, 1948-

Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms Through Festival and Ceremony
Heinberg, Richard.

Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth
Morrison, Dorothy, 1955-

Yule: Rituals, Recipes, and Lore for the Winter Solstice
Pesznecker, Susan Moonwriter.

The Christmas Revels Songbook: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice Carols, Processionals, Rounds, Ritual and Children's Songs