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Winter solstice

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Winter solstice
Sunset at Stonehenge in England during the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere
Also calledMidwinter; the Shortest Day; the Longest Night
Observed byVarious cultures
TypeCultural, astronomical
SignificanceBeginning of lengthening days and shortening nights
DateDecember 21, December 22, or December 23
(Northern Hemisphere)
and June 20, June 21, or June 22
(Southern Hemisphere)
Related toWinter festivals
The seasons with the transition points of the June solstice, September equinox, December solstice, and March equinox

The winter solstice, also called the hibernal solstice, occurs when either of Earth's poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere (Northern and Southern). For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, and when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky.[1] Each polar region experiences continuous darkness or twilight around its winter solstice. The opposite event is the summer solstice.

The winter solstice occurs during the hemisphere's winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the December solstice (December 21, December 22, or December 23) and in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the June solstice (June 20, June 21, or June 22). Although the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment, the term also refers to the day on which it occurs. The term midwinter is also used synonymously with the winter solstice, although it carries other meanings as well. Traditionally, in many temperate regions, the winter solstice is seen as the middle of winter; although today in some countries and calendars it is seen as the beginning of winter. Other names are the "extreme of winter" (Dongzhi), or the "shortest day".

Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been a significant time of year in many cultures and has been marked by festivals and rites.[2] It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun; the gradual waning of daylight hours is reversed and begins to grow again. Some ancient monuments such as Newgrange, Stonehenge, and Cahokia Woodhenge are aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the winter solstice.

History and cultural significance[edit]

There is evidence that the winter solstice was deemed an important moment of the annual cycle for some cultures as far back as the Neolithic (New Stone Age). Astronomical events were often used to guide farming activities, such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. The winter solstice was important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere). Livestock were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available.[3]

Because the winter solstice is the reversal of the Sun's apparent ebbing in the sky, in ancient times it was seen as the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun or of a Sun god.[4][5][6] In cultures which used cyclic calendars based on the winter solstice, the "year as reborn" was celebrated with reference to life-death-rebirth deities or "new beginnings" (such as Hogmanay's redding, a New Year cleaning tradition), and "reversal" (as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals).[citation needed]

Neolithic Europe[edit]

Sunlight entering the passage of Newgrange in Ireland on the winter solstice

Some important Neolithic and early Bronze Age archaeological sites in Europe are associated with the winter solstice, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). 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.[7]

Ancient Roman[edit]

In the ancient Roman calendar, December 25 was the date of the winter solstice.[8][9] In AD 274, the emperor Aurelian made this the date of the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of Sol Invictus or the 'Invincible Sun'.[9][10] Gary Forsythe, Professor of Ancient History, says "This celebration would have formed a welcome addition to the seven-day period of the Saturnalia (December 17–23), Rome's most joyous holiday season since Republican times, characterized by parties, banquets, and exchanges of gifts".[9]

A widely-held theory is that the Church chose December 25 as Christ's birthday (Dies Natalis Christi) to appropriate the Roman winter solstice festival marking the sun god's birthday (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti).[10][9][11] According to C. Philipp E. Nothaft, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, though this theory "is nowadays used as the default explanation for the choice of 25 December as Christ's birthday, few advocates of this theory seem to be aware of how paltry the available evidence actually is."[12]


Neolithic site of Goseck circle in Germany. The yellow lines indicate the directions in which sunrise and sunset are seen on the day of the winter solstice.

In Anglo-Saxon England the winter solstice was generally deemed to be 25 December, and in Old English, midwinter could mean both the winter solstice and Christmas.[13][14]

The North Germanic peoples celebrated a winter holiday called Yule. The Heimskringla, written in the 13th century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, describes a Yule feast hosted by the Norwegian king Haakon the Good (c. 920–961). According to Snorri, the Christian Haakon had moved Yule from "midwinter" and aligned it with the Christian Christmas celebration. Historically, this has made some scholars believe that Yule originally was a sun festival on the winter solstice. Modern scholars generally do not believe this, as midwinter in medieval Iceland was a date about four weeks after the solstice.[15] During the Christianisation of the Germanic peoples, Yule was incorporated into the Christmas celebrations and the term and its cognates remain used to refer to Christmas in modern Northern European languages such as English and Swedish.[16][17]

East Asian[edit]

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a cave (by Kunisada)
Sunlight directed through the 17 arches of Seventeen Arch Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing around winter solstice

In East Asia, the winter solstice has been celebrated as one of the Twenty-four Solar Terms, called Dongzhi (冬至) in Chinese. In Japan, in order not to catch cold in the winter, there is a custom to soak oneself in a yuzu hot bath (Japanese: 柚子湯 = Yuzuyu).[18]


Makara Sankranti, also known as Makara Sankrānti (Sanskrit: मकर संक्रांति) or Maghi, is a festival day in the Hindu calendar, in reference to deity Surya (sun). It is observed each year in January.[19] It marks the first day of Sun's transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days.[19][20]


Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice as, "Yalda night", which is known to be the "longest and darkest night of the year". Yalda night celebration, or as some call it "Shabe Chelleh" ("the 40th night"), is one of the oldest Iranian traditions that has been present in Persian culture from ancient times. In this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the eldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reciting poetry (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are particularly served during this festival.


An Aggadic legend found in tractate Avodah Zarah 8a puts forth the talmudic hypothesis that Adam first established the tradition of fasting before the winter solstice, and rejoicing afterward, which festival later developed into the Roman Saturnalia and Kalendae.

When the First Man saw that the day was continuously shortening, he said, "Woe is me! Because I have sinned, the world darkens around me, and returns to formlessless and void. This is the death to which Heaven has sentenced me!" He decided to spend eight days in fasting and prayer. When he saw the winter solstice, and he saw that the day was continuously lengthening, he said, "It is the order of the world!" He went and feasted for eight days. The following year, he feasted for both. He established them in Heaven's name, but they established them in the name of idolatry[21]


UT date and time of
equinoxes and solstices on Earth[22][23]
event equinox solstice equinox solstice
month March[24] June[25] September[26] December[27]
year day time day time day time day time
2019 20 21:58 21 15:54 23 07:50 22 04:19
2020 20 03:50 20 21:43 22 13:31 21 10:03
2021 20 09:37 21 03:32 22 19:21 21 15:59
2022 20 15:33 21 09:14 23 01:04 21 21:48
2023 20 21:25 21 14:58 23 06:50 22 03:28
2024 20 03:07 20 20:51 22 12:44 21 09:20
2025 20 09:02 21 02:42 22 18:20 21 15:03
2026 20 14:46 21 08:25 23 00:06 21 20:50
2027 20 20:25 21 14:11 23 06:02 22 02:43
2028 20 02:17 20 20:02 22 11:45 21 08:20
2029 20 08:01 21 01:48 22 17:37 21 14:14

Although the instant of the solstice can be calculated,[28] direct observation of the moment by visual perception is elusive. The Sun moves too slowly or appears to stand still (the meaning of "solstice"). However, by use of astronomical data tracking, the precise timing of its occurrence is now public knowledge. The precise instant of the solstice cannot be directly detected (by definition, people cannot observe that an object has stopped moving until it is later observed that it has not moved further from the preceding spot, or that it has moved in the opposite direction). To be precise to a single day, observers must be able to view a change in azimuth or elevation less than or equal to about 1/60 of the angular diameter of the Sun. Observing that it occurred within a two-day period is easier, requiring an observation precision of only about 1/16 of the angular diameter of the Sun. Thus, many observations are of the day of the solstice rather than the instant. This is often done by observing sunrise and sunset or using an astronomically aligned instrument that allows a ray of light to be cast on a certain point around that time. The earliest sunset and latest sunrise dates differ from winter solstice, however, and these depend on latitude, due to the variation in the solar day throughout the year caused by the Earth's elliptical orbit (see earliest and latest sunrise and sunset).

Holidays celebrated on the winter solstice[edit]

Other related festivals[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shipman, James; Wilson, Jerry D.; Todd, Aaron (2007). "Section 15.5". An Introduction to Physical Science (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 423. ISBN 978-0-618-92696-1.
  2. ^ "Winter Solstice celebrations: a.k.a. Christmas, Saturnalia, Yule, the Long Night, the start of Winter, etc". Religious Tolerance.org. August 5, 2015 [December 3, 1999].
  3. ^ "History of Christmas". History.com. Retrieved January 2, 2017.
  4. ^ Krupp, E C. Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Courier Corporation, 2012. pp. 119, 125, 195
  5. ^ North, John. Stonehenge. The Free Press, 1996. p. 530
  6. ^ Hadingham, Evan. Early Man and the Cosmos. University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. p. 50
  7. ^ Johnson, Anthony (2008). Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma. Thames & Hudson. pp. 252–253. ISBN 978-0500051559.
  8. ^ O'Neill, William Matthew (1976). Time and the Calendars. Manchester University Press. p. 85.
  9. ^ a b c d Forsythe, Gary (2012). Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History. Routledge. pp. 113, 123, 141.
  10. ^ a b Bradshaw, Paul (2020). "The Dating of Christmas". In Larsen, Timothy (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Christmas. Oxford University Press. pp. 4–10.
  11. ^ Nothaft, C. P. E. (December 2012). "The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research". Church History. 81 (4): 903–911. doi:10.1017/S0009640712001941. ISSN 0009-6407. S2CID 145151430.
  12. ^ Nothaft, C. Philipp E. (2013). "Early Christian Chronology and the Origins of the Christmas Date". Questions Liturgiques/Studies in Liturgy. 94 (3). Peeters: 248. doi:10.2143/QL.94.3.3007366. Although HRT is nowadays used as the default explanation for the choice of 25 December as Christ's birthday, few advocates of this theory seem to be aware of how paltry the available evidence actually is.
  13. ^ Karasawa, Kazutomo (2015). The Old English Metrical Calendar (Menologium). Boydell & Brewer. pp. 36–37.
  14. ^ Parker, Eleanor (2023). Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year. Reaktion Books. pp. 70–71.
  15. ^ Nordberg, Andreas (2006). Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. Acta Academiae Regiae Gustavi Adolphi (in Swedish). Vol. 91. Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för svensk folkkultur. pp. 120–121. ISBN 91-85352-62-4. ISSN 0065-0897.
  16. ^ "Yule". Wiktionary. 17 March 2023. Retrieved 26 March 2023.
  17. ^ "jul". Wiktionary. 17 March 2023. Retrieved 26 March 2023.
  18. ^ "Goin' Japanesque!: Japanese Winter Solstice Traditions; A Day for Kabocha and Yuzuyu". Archived from the original on 2019-08-07. Retrieved 2018-03-03.
  19. ^ a b Kamal Kumar Tumuluru (2015). Hindu Prayers, Gods and Festivals. Partridge. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-4828-4707-9.
  20. ^ James G. Lochtefeld (2002). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A - M. Rosen Publishing Group. p. 411. ISBN 978-0-8239-2287-1.
  21. ^ "Avodah Zarah 8a:7".
  22. ^ Astronomical Applications Department of USNO. "Earth's Seasons - Equinoxes, Solstices, Perihelion, and Aphelion". Retrieved 2022-08-01.
  23. ^ "Solstices and Equinoxes: 2001 to 2100". AstroPixels.com. 20 February 2018. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  24. ^ Équinoxe de printemps entre 1583 et 2999
  25. ^ Solstice d’été de 1583 à 2999
  26. ^ Équinoxe d’automne de 1583 à 2999
  27. ^ Solstice d’hiver
  28. ^ Meeus, Jean (2009). Astronomical Algorithms (2nd English Edition with corrections as of August 10, 2009 ed.). Richmond, Virginia: Willmann-Bell, Inc. ISBN 978-0-943396-61-3.

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