Winter solstice

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Winter solstice
LHS sunstones.jpg
At the Lawrence Hall of Science in California, visitors observe sunset on the day of the winter solstice using the Sunstones II.
Also calledthe Longest Night
Observed byVarious cultures
TypeCultural, astronomical
SignificanceAstronomically marks the beginning of lengthening days and shortening nights
CelebrationsFestivals, spending time with loved ones, feasting, singing, dancing, fires
Dateabout December 21 (NH)
about June 21 (SH)
FrequencyTwice a year (once in the northern hemisphere, once in the southern hemisphere, six months apart)
Related to Winter festivals and the solstice

The winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It 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, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. [3] At the pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around the winter solstice. Its opposite is the summer solstice. Also the Tropic of Cancer or Tropic of Capricorn depending on the hemispheres winter solstice the sun goes 90 degrees below the horizon at solar midnight to the nadir.


The winter solstice occurs during the hemisphere's winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the December solstice (usually December 21 or 22) and in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the June solstice (usually June 20 or 21). Although the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment, the term sometimes refers to the day on which it occurs. Other names are the "extreme of winter" (Dongzhi), or the "shortest day". Since the 18th century, the term "midwinter" has sometimes been 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, but today in some countries and calendars, it is seen as the beginning of winter.

Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures, and has been marked by festivals and rituals. [4] It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun. [5] [6] [7] The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.

History and cultural significance

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a cave (by Kunisada) Amaterasu cave - large - 1856.jpeg
Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a cave (by Kunisada)
Winter solstice occurs in December for the northern hemisphere, and June for the southern hemisphere. Seasonearth.png
Winter solstice occurs in December for the northern hemisphere, and June for the southern hemisphere.

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 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. [8]

The winter solstice was immensely 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), also known as "the famine months". In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle 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. [9] The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but at the beginning of the pagan day, which in many cultures fell on the previous eve.[ citation needed ]

Because the event was seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common. [ citation needed ] 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. [ citation needed ] Also "reversal" is yet another frequent theme, as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals.


Makara Sankranti, also known as Makaraa 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. [10] 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. [10] [11] In India, this occasion, known as Ayan Parivartan (Sanskrit: अयन परिवर्तन), is celebrated by religious Hindus as a holy day, with Hindus performing customs such as bathing in holy rivers, giving alms and donations, praying to deities and doing other holy deeds.


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 the oldest Iranian traditions that has been present in Persian culture from the ancient years. 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.


The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a winter holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót). 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. [12]

Roman cult of Sol

Sol Invictus ("The Unconquered Sun/Invincible Sun") was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian. [13] His holiday is traditionally celebrated on December 25, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions. [14] It has been speculated to be the reason behind Christmas' proximity to the solstice. [15]

East Asian

Sunlight directed through the 17 arches of Seventeen Arch Bridge, Summer Palace, Beijing around winter solstice Seventeen Arch Bridge at winter solstice sunset (20201222160213).jpg
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 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). [16]


Although the instant of the solstice can be calculated, [17] direct observation of the solstice by amateurs is impossible because 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. One cannot directly detect the precise instant of the solstice (by definition, one cannot observe that an object has stopped moving until one later observes that it has not moved further from the preceding spot, or that it has moved in the opposite direction). Furthermore, to be precise to a single day, one must be able to observe 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

Length of the day near the northern winter solstice

The following tables contain information on the length of the day on December 22nd, close to the winter solstice of the Northern Hemisphere and the summer solstice of the Southern Hemisphere (i.e. December solstice). The data was collected from the website of the Finnish Meteorological Institute on 22 December 2015, as well as from certain other websites. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23]

The data is arranged geographically and within the tables from the shortest day to the longest one.

The Nordic countries and the Baltic states
22 Dec 2015
22 Dec 2015
Length of the day
Murmansk 0 h
Bodø 11:3612:250 h 49 min
Rovaniemi 11:0813:222 h 14 min
Luleå 9:5513:043 h 08 min
Reykjavík 11:2215:294 h 07 min
Trondheim 10:0114:314 h 30 min
Tórshavn 9:5114:595 h 08 min
Helsinki 9:2415:135 h 49 min
Oslo 9:1815:125 h 54 min
Tallinn 9:1715:206 h 02 min
Stockholm 8:4314:486 h 04 min
Riga 9:0015:436 h 43 min
Copenhagen 8:3715:387 h 01 min
Vilnius 8:4015:547 h 14 min
22 Dec 2015
22 Dec 2015
Length of the day
Edinburgh 8:4215:406 h 57 min
Moscow 8:5715:587 h 00 min
Berlin 8:1515:547 h 39 min
Warsaw 7:4315:257 h 42 min
London 8:0415:537 h 49 min
Kyiv 7:5615:568 h 00 min
Paris 8:4116:568 h 14 min
Vienna 7:4216:038 h 20 min
Budapest 7:2815:558 h 26 min
Rome 7:3416:429 h 07 min
Madrid 8:3417:519 h 17 min
Lisbon 7:5117:189 h 27 min
Athens 7:3717:099 h 31 min
22 Dec 2015
22 Dec 2015
Length of the day
Cairo 6:4716:5910 h 12 min
Tenerife 7:5318:1310 h 19 min
Dakar 7:3018:4611 h 15 min
Addis Ababa 6:3518:1111 h 36 min
Nairobi 6:2518:3712 h 11 min
Kinshasa 5:4518:0812 h 22 min
Dar es Salaam 6:0518:3612 h 31 min
Luanda 5:4618:2412 h 38 min
Antananarivo 5:1018:2613 h 16 min
Windhoek 6:0419:3513 h 31 min
Johannesburg 5:1218:5913 h 47 min
Cape Town 5:3219:5714 h 25 min
22 Dec 2015
22 Dec 2015
Length of the day
Inuvik 0 h
Fairbanks 10:5814:403 h 41 min
Nuuk 10:2214:284 h 06 min
Anchorage 10:1415:425 h 27 min
Edmonton 8:4816:157 h 27 min
Vancouver 8:0516:168 h 11 min
Seattle 7:5516:208 h 25 min
Ottawa 7:3916:228 h 42 min
Toronto 7:4816:438 h 55 min
New York City 7:1616:329 h 15 min
Washington, D.C. 7:2316:499 h 26 min
Los Angeles 6:5516:489 h 53 min
Dallas 7:2517:259 h 59 min
Miami 7:0317:3510 h 31 min
Honolulu 7:0417:5510 h 50 min
Mexico City 7:0618:0310 h 57 min
Managua 6:0117:2611 h 24 min
Bogotá 5:5917:5011 h 51 min
Quito 6:0818:1612 h 08 min
Recife 5:0017:3512 h 35 min
Lima 5:4118:3112 h 50 min
La Paz 5:5719:0413 h 06 min
Rio de Janeiro 6:0419:3713 h 33 min
São Paulo 6:1719:5213 h 35 min
Porto Alegre 6:2020:2514 h 05 min
Santiago 6:2920:5214 h 22 min
Buenos Aires 5:3720:0614 h 28 min
Ushuaia 4:5122:1117 h 19 min
Asia and Oceania
22 Dec 2015
22 Dec 2015
Length of the day
Magadan 8:5414:556 h 00 min
Petropavlovsk 9:3617:107 h 33 min
Khabarovsk 8:4817:078 h 18 min
Ulaanbaatar 8:3917:028 h 22 min
Vladivostok 8:4017:408 h 59 min
Beijing 7:3216:529 h 20 min
Seoul 7:4417:179 h 34 min
Tokyo 6:4716:319 h 44 min
Shanghai 6:4816:5510 h 07 min
Lhasa 8:4619:0110 h 14 min
Delhi 7:0917:2810 h 19 min
Hong Kong 6:5817:4410 h 46 min
Manila 6:1617:3211 h 15 min
Bangkok 6:3617:5511 h 19 min
Singapore 7:0119:0412 h 03 min
Jakarta 5:3618:0512 h 28 min
Denpasar 5:5818:3612 h 37 min
Darwin 6:1919:1012 h 51 min
Papeete 5:2118:3213 h 10 min
Brisbane 4:4918:4213 h 52 min
Perth 5:0719:2214 h 14 min
Sydney 5:4120:0514 h 24 min
Auckland 5:5820:3914 h 41 min
Melbourne 5:5420:4214 h 47 min
Invercargill 5:5021:3915 h 48 min

Length of day increases from the equator towards the South Pole in the Southern Hemisphere in December (around the summer solstice there), but decreases towards the North Pole in the Northern Hemisphere at the time of the northern winter solstice.

See also

Related Research Articles

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The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans, consisting of the year's chief solar events and the midpoints between them. While names for each festival vary among diverse pagan traditions, syncretic treatments often refer to the four solar events as "quarter days" and the four midpoint events as "cross-quarter days", particularly in Wicca. Differing sects of modern Paganism also vary regarding the precise timing of each celebration, based on distinctions such as lunar phase and geographic hemisphere.

Winter Coldest of the four temperate seasons

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Yule Religious festival observed during the Winter season

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Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival and holiday in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves as it was seen as a time of liberty for both slaves and freedmen alike. A common custom was the election of a "King of the Saturnalia", who would give orders to people, which were to be followed and preside over the merrymaking. The gifts exchanged were usually gag gifts or small figurines made of wax or pottery known as sigillaria. The poet Catullus called it "the best of days".

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Dongzhi Festival

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Lohri is a popular Punjabi winter folk festival celebrated primarily in the Punjab region. The significance and legends about the Lohri festival are many and these link the festival to the Punjab region. It is believed by many that the festival commemorates the passing of the winter solstice. Lohri marks the end of winter, and is a traditional welcome of longer days and the sun's journey to the northern hemisphere by Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. It is observed the night before Makar Sankranti, also known as Maghi, and according to the solar part of the lunisolar Bikrami calendar and typically falls about the same date every year.

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<i>Dongzhi</i> (solar term)

The traditional East Asian calendars divide a year into 24 solar terms. Dōngzhì, Tōji, Dongji, Tunji, or Đông chí is the 22nd solar term, and marks the winter solstice. It begins when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 270° and ends when it reaches the longitude of 285°. It more often refers in particular to the day when the Sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 270°. In the Gregorian calendar, it usually begins around 21 December and ends around 5 January.

The term Uttarāyaṇa is derived from two different Sanskrit words "uttara" (North) and "ayana" (movement) thus indicating a semantic of the northward movement of the Earth on the celestial sphere. This movement begins to occur a day after the winter solstice in December which occurs around 22 December and continues for a six-month period through to the summer solstice around June 21. This difference is because the solstices are continually precessing at a rate of 50 arcseconds / year due to the precession of the equinoxes, i.e. this difference is the difference between the sidereal and tropical zodiacs. The Surya Siddhanta bridges this difference by juxtaposing the four solstitial and equinotial points with four of the twelve boundaries of the rashis.

Maghe Sankranti Nepalese festival

Maghe Sankranti is a Nepalese festival observed on the first of Magh in the Vikram Sambat (B.S) calendar bringing an end to the winter solstice containing month of Poush. Tharu people celebrate this particular day as new year. It is also regarded as the major government declared annual festival of the Magar community. Maghe Sankranti is similar to solstice festivals in other religious traditions.

Summer solstice Astronomical phenomenon when Earths axial tilt toward the Sun is a maximum (currently 23.44°)

The summer solstice, also known as estival solstice or midsummer, occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt toward the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. For that hemisphere, the summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and is the day with the longest period of daylight. Within the Arctic circle or Antarctic circle, there is continuous daylight around the summer solstice. On the summer solstice, Earth's maximum axial tilt toward the Sun is 23.44°. Likewise, the Sun's declination from the celestial equator is 23.44°.

Yaldā Night Persian festival

Yaldā Night or Chelleh Night is an Iranian Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice festival celebrated on the "longest and darkest night of the year." According to the calendar, this corresponds to the night of December 20/21 (±1) in the Gregorian calendar, and to the night between the last day of the ninth month (Azar) and the first day of the tenth month (Dey) of the Iranian civil calendar. The longest and darkest night of the year is a time when friends and family gather together to eat, drink and read poetry until well after midnight. Fruits and nuts are eaten and pomegranates and watermelons are particularly significant. The red color in these fruits symbolizes the crimson hues of dawn and glow of life. The poems of Divan-e Hafez, which can be found in the bookcases of most Iranian families, are read or recited on various occasions such as this festival and Nowruz. Shab-e Yalda was officially added to Iran's List of National Treasures in a special ceremony in 2008.

Lists of holidays by various categorizations.


Nardoqan or Nardugan was a Turkic holiday concept. Nowadays, it is most commonly used to refer to the winter solstice in many Central Asia languages. It is also used as an equivalent name for the Christian holiday Christmas.

Persian astronomy or Iranian astronomy refers to the astronomy in ancient Persian history.


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Further reading