DECEMBER 21 - First Day of Winter (Solstice)

DECEMBER 21, 2012* - The First Day of Winter (Solstice)

#022 – Snowflake

Winter solstice

The winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun's position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer's hemisphere. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradually lengthening nights and shortening days. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the winter solstice occurs some time between December 21 and December 22 each year in the northern hemisphere, and between June 20 and June 21 in the southern hemisphere, during either the shortest day or longest night of the year. Though the winter solstice lasts an instant, the term is also colloquially used like "midwinter" to refer to the full 24-hour period of the day on which it occurs.
Diagram of the Earth's seasons as seen from the north. Far right: December solstice

Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.

The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).

Since 45 BCE, when the 25th was established in the Julian calendar as the winter solstice of Europe, (Latin: Bruma), the difference between the calendar year (365.2500 days) and the tropical year (365.2422 days) moved the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice forward approximately three days every four centuries until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar bringing the northern winter solstice to around December 21. Yearly, in the Gregorian calendar the solstice still fluctuates slightly, but in the long term, only about one day every 3000 years.

Seasonal Position

How cultures interpret the solstice is varied, since it is sometimes said to astronomically mark either the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. Winter is a subjective term, so there is no scientifically established beginning or middle of winter but the winter solstice itself is clearly calculated to within a second. For Celtic countries, such as Ireland, the calendarical winter season has traditionally begun November 1 on All Hallows or Samhain. Winter ends and spring begins on Imbolc or Candlemas, which is February 1 or 2. This calendar system of seasons may be based on the length of days exclusively. Most East Asian cultures define the seasons by solar terms, with Dong zhi at the winter solstice as the middle or "extreme" of winter. This system is based on the Sun's apparent height above the horizon at noon. Some midwinter festivals have occurred according to lunar calendars and so took place on the night of H_ku (Hawaiian, the full moon closest to the winter solstice). And many European solar calendar midwinter celebrations still centre upon the night of December 24 leading into the December 25 in the north, which was considered to be the winter solstice upon the establishment of the Julian calendar. In the Jewish Talmud, the day of the winter solstice, is recorded as the first day of the "stripping time" or winter season. Persian culture also recognizes it as the beginning of winter.

Sunrise and Sunset

Due to the Earth's elliptical orbit and axial tilt, neither the earliest sunset nor the latest sunrise fall exactly on the winter solstice. The earliest sunset occurs earlier than the solstice (by a few days), and the latest sunrise later. For one or two weeks surrounding both solstices, both sunrise and sunset get slightly later or earlier each day. Even on the equator, sunrise and sunset shift several minutes back and forth through the year, along with solar noon. This effect is plotted by an analemma.

History and cultural significance

The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during neolithic times. Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange 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 (New Grange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). Significant in respect of Stonehenge is the fact that the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the centre of the monument, i.e. its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January and April, 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 supply of fresh meat was available. 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 the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve.

Explanations for parallel traditions

Since the event is 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 and, in cultures using winter solstitially based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings such as Hogmanay's redding, a New Years cleaning tradition. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice, and Hades was permitted on Mount Olympus. Also reversal is another usual theme as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals.

Migration and appropriation

Many outside traditions are often adopted by neighboring or invading cultures. Some historians will often assert that many traditions are directly derived from previous ones rooting all the way back to those begun in the cradle of civilization or beyond, much in a way that correlates to speculations on the origins of languages.


Even in modern cultures these gatherings are still valued for emotional comfort, having something to look forward to at the darkest time of the year. This is especially the case for populations in the near polar regions of the hemisphere. The depressive psychological effects of winter on individuals and societies are for the most part tied to coldness, tiredness, malaise, and inactivity.

Also, insufficient sunlight in the short winter days increases the secretion of melatonin in the body, throwing off the circadian rhythm with longer sleep. Exercise, light therapy, increased negative ion exposure (which can be attained from plants and well ventilated flames, burning wood or beeswax) can reinvigorate the body from its seasonal lull and relieve winter blues by decreasing melatonin secretions, increasing serotonin and temporarily creating a more even sleeping pattern.

Midwinter festivals and celebrations occurring on the longest night of the year, often calling for evergreens, bright illumination, large ongoing fires, feasting, communion with close ones, and evening physical exertion by dancing and singing are examples of cultural winter therapies that have evolved as traditions since the beginnings of civilization. Such traditions can stir the wit, stave off malaise, reset the internal clock and rekindle the human spirit.


Meán Geimhridh, Celtic Midwinter (Celtic, Ancient Welsh, Neodruidic)

Meán Geimhridh (Irish tr: midwinter) or Grianstad an Gheimhridh (Ir tr: winter solstice) is a name sometimes used for hypothetical midwinter rituals or celebrations of the Proto-Celtic tribes, Celts, and late Druids. In Ireland's calendars, the solstices and equinoxes all occur at about midpoint in each season. The passage and chamber of Newgrange (Pre-Celtic or possibly Proto-Celtic 3,200 BCE), a tomb in Ireland, are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December. The point of roughness is the term for the winter solstice in Wales which in ancient Welsh mythology, was when Rhiannon gave birth to the sacred son, Pryderi.


Yule, Jul, Jól, Joul, Joulu, Jõulud, Géol, Geul (Viking Age, Northern Europe, and Germanic cultures)


Originally the name Giuli signified a 60 day tide beginning at the lunar midwinter of the late Scandinavian Norse and Germanic tribes. The arrival of Juletid thus came to refer to the midwinter celebrations. By the late Viking Age, the Yule celebrations came to specify a great solstitial Midwinter festival that amalgamated the traditions of various midwinter celebrations across Europe, like Mitwinternacht, Modrasnach, Midvinterblot, and the Teutonic solstice celebration, Feast of the Dead. A documented example of this is in 960, when King Håkon of Norway signed into law that Jul was to be celebrated on the night leading into December 25, to align it with the Christian celebrations. For some Norse sects, Yule logs were lit to honor Thor, the god of thunder. Feasting would continue until the log burned out, three or as many as twelve days. The indigenous lore of the Icelandic Jól continued beyond the Middle Ages, but was condemned when the Reformation arrived. The celebration continues today throughout Northern Europe and elsewhere in name and traditions, for Christians as representative of the nativity of Jesus on the night of December 24, and for others as a cultural winter celebration on the 24th or for some, the date of the solstice.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

*The winter solstice will be as follows:
                       2011 – December 22
                       2012 – December 21
                       2013 – December 21
                       2014 – December 21