The winter solstice: The shortest day of the year

The sun shining through the stones of Stonehenge

It’s the shortest, darkest day of the year in the UK, but the winter solstice isn’t all doom and gloom. An interesting history and being at the heart of the festive season mean the winter solstice is something to celebrate, although that’s probably from the comfort of your own home under a blanket. Let’s explore some of the most fascinating facts about the shortest of days.

Winter solstice 2022

The winter solstice is the time of year when the Sun is the greatest distance away from the Tropic of Cancer. This year’s winter solstice will take place at 9:48pm GMT on 21st December 2022. The event is always around 21st to 23rd December, and it’s your chance to see some fascinating sights if you get to the right locations in time.

The Sun stands still

Solstice is a traditional astronomical term and is Latin in origin. The name is taken from the idea that the sun appears to come to a standstill, and in Ancient Rome, this was described as ‘solstitium’, a combination of the words ‘sol’, meaning sun, and ‘sistere’, meaning standstill.

A time of death and rebirth

Early civilisations and societies closely linked nature to the human experience. The apparent ‘death of the light’ and the danger this posed to societies that hunt to survive meant a wide range of solstice celebrations and rituals were commonplace in ancient communities. Cattle and other livestock would be slaughtered in midwinter to allow for feasting and survival on their meat throughout the colder months. Some communities still celebrate the ancient solstice with modern Druids observing the celebration Alban Arthan which reveres the death of the Old Sun and rebirth of a New Sun.

Newgrange illumination

Newgrange, an ancient tomb mound in County Meath, Ireland, lights up amazingly each winter solstice. The tomb mound is at least 1000 years older than Stonehenge and the roof box above the entrance of the tomb is coordinated perfectly with the light from the winter solstice sunrise. This creates a solid beam of light that travels through the tomb’s passage and illuminates the chamber for several minutes each year. The attraction is hugely popular and people have to enter an annual lottery to get a ticket to the event.

The Christmas connection

We’ve already highlighted how ancient civilisations and societies traditionally held celebrations at the winter solstice. The Romans had Saturnalia, yuletide celebrations were common in early Nordic and German settlements and early Christian societies did not want to miss out on the festivities. In an attempt to attract pagans to their faith, early Christian leaders began celebrating at the same time, leading to the development of Christmas. Many of the most popular Christmas traditions like mistletoe and Christmas trees, can be traced back to winter solstice celebrations.

Dong Zhi celebrations

Winter solstice is also a big deal in Chinese culture. Dong Zhi means ‘the arrival of winter’ and is a very important celebration. Families gather and celebrate, and it began as a celebration at the end of the harvest season. Dong Zhi is also closely linked with the spiritual concept of yin and yang as the seasons balance out. Feasts are packed with rich, filling foods, including rice balls, called tang yuan, dumplings, wontons, and mutton-based dishes.

Different solstices for different planets

Research from NASA suggests each planet in the Solar System has its own solstices and equinoxes. The length of seasons differs dependent on the planet’s tilt as well as its distance from the Sun. Uranus, for example, has an 82-degree tilt, so each season on this planet lasts 20 years!

Stonehenge alignment

The main axis of Stonehenge is positioned to align with the setting sun. While the history behind Stonehenge is unknown, many people believe its construction is closely linked with the solstice, and perhaps the Sun had religious or spiritual significance for the society that built it.

Today, the sunrise at Stonehenge is seen by hundreds who visit the monument for free so as many people as possible can experience the unique atmosphere of the winter solstice sunrise in a spiritually important location. It is also live streamed on YouTube by The National Trust.