Hello, December: The Winter Solstice

It’s that time of year again—scarves, ice skating, peppermint sticks, creme brûlée lattes from Starbucks, wreaths decked out on every light post, and snowmen on every corner. Let’s all bundle up, darlings, and taste that first snow (or second, or third) on our tongues.

Winter has officially begun!

You might be asking, “Hasn’t it been winter?” All of the commercial buzz has convinced many of us that the start of winter has already passed us by: Once the first day of December hits, or more accurately the day after Thanksgiving, all of us are bombarded by the Winter Wonderland blizzard, provided by super stores, malls, town centers, and basically every other faction of the modern industrial world. Yet today marks the first official winter greeting. I know that the holiday season has already revved up the season of winter in our hearts, but the winter solstice is the thing which truly marks that icy season.

So, what is the winter solstice?

You’ve probably long heard of it, but what the hell does it actually mean? You may know that it is the shortest day of the year, but why? And when is it exactly? Here are some Winter Solstice FAQs for all you darlings:

When it is:

Today! December 21 is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and the December solstice. It fell on December 21 in 2013 too, but next year the solstice will occur on December 22.

Wait, why do the dates change?

The earth takes 365.25 days to go around the sun, and combined with the “wobble,” or the exact, precise rotation and orbit of the earth, the date can jump around.

What it actually is:

The December solstice occurs at the moment when the sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn (located 23.5 degrees south of the equator). In the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the longest night, and the first day of winter (although this may vary depending exactly where your country is located in the N. Hemisphere). For those below the equator, the December solstice signals the start of summer (time to surf!), and the longest day of the year. Solstices happen twice a year: in December, and June.

It’s all about that tilt:

While the earth is spinning around the sun, it tilts on its axis—by 23.5 degrees, to be exact (hey, the same degree as the Tropic of Capricorn). In December, the Northern Hemisphere is as tilted away from the sun as possible. So if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere on December 21, the sun will be at its most southern (or lowest) point on the sky’s dome all year. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, that means it will be at the highest, or most northern part of the sky. As the earth rotates, the tilt changes—in December, the Northern Hemisphere is away from the sun, and in June, the Southern Hemisphere is tilted away from it.

Does shortest day equal coldest day?

No, actually. Even though the days are getting longer in the north, the earth is losing more energy than is being gained by the sun. So stay bundled up, darlings! Same applies to y’all in the Southern Hemisphere: the longest day doesn’t equate to hottest day.

Ancient and traditional solstice celebrations:

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  • Ritual baths, singing, and dancing made up the celebration of Chaomos in Pakistan.
  • The Intihuatana Stone, erected by the Incans at Machu Picchu to mark the winter solstice
  • The temple and tomb of Newgrange in Ireland is a mound that allows a beam of light to enter into the roof-box, and flood into the chamber, where people would be waiting to watch the first light of winter. The illumination lasts for seventeen minutes, and astrologers some 5,000 years ago were the ones to calculate the lighting.
  • The pre-Christian Scandinavians celebrated their winter solstice by lighting fires at The Feast of Juul. The fires reminded them of the sun: the warmth, light, and life-giving elements.

How we celebrate the event today:

Hot cocoa. Cute boots. “Love, Actually.” Starbucks galore. Many of us have stopped paying all that much attention to the actual movement of the earth, and instead we mark the entrance of the new season prematurely, and with lots of fa-la-la-ing. Recently however, there have been spikes of interest in celebrating the official event at ancient landmarks, like at Stonehenge.

Coincidence that it’s so close to Christmas, right?

No, not really. Early Christian leaders decided to add Christian meanings and context to pre-existing solstice celebrations. This attracted more followers, and especially those in the West. In fact, the word “Yule” originated from the word “Juul”—as in The Feast of Juul. Yule literally means “Christmas.”

Fun Fact:

This year, the solstice will happen at 11:03 PM, Universal Time today, December 21 (and it always happens at the exact same time, for everyone, everywhere). So this means that at 11:03 PM UT, the sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn. Because of that late hour though, many Eastern nations around the world will experience the solstice on December 22, as you have to take time differences into account. So many of those in Asia, Africa, Europe, and all in Australia and New Zealand will have to wait until December 22 to officially welcome the solstice.

So happy solstice darlings, and stay warm, whether that means basking in the summer sun, or bundled up in front of the fireplace.

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