What is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice occurs when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the sun, or when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5° south latitude. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is known as the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Southern Hemisphere, it marks the longest day of the year while the sun is closest to the earth. The word 'solstice' comes from the Latin solstitial meaning 'sun stands still.”
Many people believe the winter solstice marks the first day of winter, however that depends on whether you follow the meteorological or astronomical definition of the seasons. If you use the meteorological season, winter starts on December 1st. If you follow the astronomical season, winter begins on the winter solstice.
When is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice is on Sunday, December 22, 2019.
How is it celebrated?
The winter solstice has been marked by festivals and rituals for thousands of years. Today, many cultures around the world still celebrate the beginning of winter. Check out a few current winter solstice celebrations across different continents.
Many of the present-day Christmas traditions come from ancient winter solstice celebrations. For example, the yule log and mistletoe come from Yule, a 12-day pagan festival observed by the early Germanic peoples in Northern Europe. Before Christianity, ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a week-long festival that honored the agricultural god Saturn during the winter solstice in mid-December. Many believe this day eventually morphed into Christmas, as the Bible does not give a date for Jesus’ birth.
This Iranian festival, which falls directly on the eve of the winter solstice, is a celebration between friends and family to mark the end of a long, dark winter and the coming of spring. Food is an integral part of the festivities, starting with a feast of traditional Persian dishes followed by dried fruit, pomegranates, watermelon, sweets, and tea. Families will also generally read poetry aloud from Hafez, the most revered poet in Iran.
Widely celebrated in China, the Dongzhi Festival celebrates the winter solstice much as it did 2,000 years ago. Many rituals revolve around food, but there are a few variations depending on where you live. Traditionally, dumplings are eaten in the north, while sweet rice balls known as tangyuan are eaten in the south. Both foods are believed to bring good luck and long life in the coming new year. The ancient philosophy of yin and yang is also closely linked to the winter solstice. The most well-known imagery of a circle with two halves, yin, represents the dark (winter) and yang, represents the light (summer). During Dongzhi, many people believe yin is at its peak, but will gradually diminish.
In southern England, visitors and locals gather at the prehistoric site of Stonehenge at sunrise to celebrate the winter solstice. While the origins of Stonehenge remain a mystery to this day, many archeologists believe it was built to observe the solstices and equinoxes. During the winter solstice, the sun sets between the tallest stones, which are known as a trilithon. A truly spectacular sight to see, it’s no wonder people gather in the thousands to watch this phenomenon!
In June, when the Southern Hemisphere celebrates its winter solstice, the ancient Inca celebration of Inti Raymi (Sun Festival) lives on. It honors the sun god Inti, the Incas’ most important deity, and marks the start of the Inca new year. Today, you can experience vibrant Inti Raymi celebrations across South America in countries like Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. One of the largest festivities is held at the fortress of Sacsayhuaman in Cusco, Peru.
There are many ways of celebrating the winter solstice. Enjoy the one you celebrate or take on a new one!