The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, is an astronomical, as well as cultural, event. It’s the precise moment (for all of us on Earth, no matter where you live) when the winter season begins. At the moment of the winter solstice, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun is at its greatest distance from the equatorial plane and shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and gives us our shortest day and longest night of the year in terms of daylight.
The solstice can occur any time between December 20th and December 23rd; this year, it occurs on Wednesday, December 21st at 5:44 a.m. EST.
So what’s actually going on?
The Sun Stands Still?
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin sol, meaning Sun, and sistere, meaning to stand still. Upon the winter solstice, the Sun appears at its lowest point in the sky for the year (which you will see on the December 2016 calendar page in your 2017 Farmers’ Almanac). The Sun’s gradual decrease in the sky reverses upon the winter solstice, marking what many cultures believe to be a “rebirth” of the Sun as the hours of daylight become longer.
Essentially, our hours of daylight — the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset — have been growing slightly shorter each day since the summer solstice of June 20th, which was the longest day of the year of 2016 (at least in terms of light). After December 21st, the days will begin to grow longer and will continue to do so until we reach the summer solstice again (on June 21, 2017, at 12:24 a.m. EDT) and begin the whole cycle anew.
At the point of the winter solstice, the Sun has been steadily moving south and is now shining at the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest south it will get all year.
Fun Fact: Be sure to check out your noontime shadow — it will be the longest noontime shadow of you of the year!
The winter solstice has been celebrated since ancient times. Throughout the centuries, celebrations included family gatherings, festivals, singing, dancing, and the burning of fires throughout this longest night of the year. See more of the folklore and celebrations associated with the winter solstice here.