The winter solstice typically falls between the 20 and 22 of December every year, marking the beginning of winter. In the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice typically occurs between the 20 and 22 in June. In 2018, the winter solstice will be on December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, and on June 21 in the Southern Hemisphere.
What the winter solstice means
Once a year, on a specific day, at a specific time, the sun stands still over the Tropic of Capricorn. This annual astronomical event is called the winter solstice, and it is the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year. The word solstice comes from the Latin word solsitium, which means “the Sun stands still.” On this day the sun reaches its southern-most position, its journey moving northwards afterwards.
Historical and cultural importance
In ancient times, following the movement of the sun and the moon in the sky was a way of creating an annual calendar. These celestial bodies were also revered, and amazing monuments were aligned to track them. For the builders of Stonehenge, the sun held great religious significance. Stonehenge is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice, a phenomenon that attracts a massive crowd of visitors to the site annually. In Machu Picchu, there is a giant stone at the top of a sacred mountain called “Intihuatana,” which translates to “the place when the sun gets tied.” This stone is positioned to serve as a solar clock that marks the dates of the equinoxes and solstices.
The onset of winter was also a dramatic event for ancient civilizations. The winter solstice took on a symbolism of birth and death, and not without reason. Surviving a cold, long winter depended on careful planning. The scarcity of food required slaughtering most of the cattle because they couldn’t be fed through the winter months, so there was often plenty of meat available during this time of the year. Most of the beer and wine made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking too, and it became customary to mark the winter solstice with celebrations and merrymaking.
The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of Northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day “midwinter” called Yule. Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log, and others come from these Yule customs. In Iran, Yalda night is celebrated with the whole family gathering together to eat, drink, and read poems. The festival of Lohri in India is also celebrated on the winter solstice, with people singing, dancing, and eating until their bonfire goes out.
Apart from traditional and pagan rituals, many modern traditions mark the arrival of winter. The city of Brighton in England holds a fireworks parade on December 21 called “Burning the Clocks in Brighton.” The Solstice Chase Bike Race in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin is probably the second largest biker race in the U.S.