Winter’s solstice, also known as midwinter, is an astronomical, and also cultural event. In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice may fall anytime between December 20 and December 23 (the event happens between June 20 and June 23 in the southern hemisphere).
While the solstice is typically observed for a 24-hour period, the actual event lasts only one second. At the moment of winter’s solstice, the Sun is at its greatest distance from the equatorial plane and shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn (for the northern hemisphere). 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 in the sky, and its noontime elevation seems to stay the same for several days before and after this day. 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.
Depending on what region of the world you are in, the winter solstice is thought to signal either the beginning or the middle of winter. Celtic cultures mark the start of winter on November 1 (All Hallows or Samhaim) and its end on Candlemas (February 1st or 2nd). Other European cultures observe midwinter celebrations the night of December 24. Pacific Islanders have marked midwinter by the occurrence of the full moon. East Asian countries define their seasons by solar terms. North American and Jewish cultures recognize the winter solstice as marking the beginning of winter.
The winter solstice has been celebrated since ancient times. Throughout the centuries, the winter solstice has been celebrated with family gatherings, festivals, singing, dancing, and the burning of fires throughout this longest night of the year.