6 little-known facts about winter solstice

  • Avery Newmark
  • For the AJC
11:02 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 What To Love

Winter solstice is sneaking up on us just as quickly as stuffed turkeys and Christmas trees. This year's solstice will take place on Thursday, Dec.  21. 

The astronomical phenomenon happens as the earth orbits the sun (see this helpful animation). During the winter, one hemisphere (this applies to North and South) is tilted away from the sun and receives sunlight at a more oblique angle, causing a drop in temperature. 

David McKeown/Republican-Herald via AP
FILE - This Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 file photo show fall colors beginning to show along Route 209 in Reilly Township, Schuylkill County, Pa. Across the United States, 2017’s first freeze has been arriving further and further into the calendar, according to more than a century of measurements from weather stations nationwide.

The winter solstice is the point of earth’s orbit when this trend stops and that hemisphere begins to receive more and more sunlight at a steep angle. This causes temperatures to rise and days to grow longer.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year and is culturally considered the first day of winter. Since ancient times it's been celebrated as a holiday and has helped shape many cultural traditions.

Here are 6 little-known facts about winter solstice:

Ancient humans noticed the shortening of the days and were terrified that one day there would be no more daylight left. With time, people realized that after this day each year, the sun began moving towards them, again. They began to observe the day in various ways and created traditions to entice the sun to come back, known as solstice celebrations. Some of those traditions included offering gifts of imitation fruit (symbols of fertility) and the lighting of yule logs, a special log that is burned through the night of the winter solstice to help bring light to the darkest night of the year and to help reignite the sun.

In modern times, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. Many believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus was set to sync with the December solstice because from that point on, the days begin to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. However, according to historian David Gwynn, Christmas was set on Dec. 25 to offset pagan celebrations of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), a Roman holiday.

Another connection to Christmas is the term Yule, derived from the Norse word jól, which refers to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival.

Courtesy of Wikimedia
A modern deluxe gingerbread house complete with double doors. Ginger traces back to the early traditions of winter solstice.

Making gingerbread houses and cookies around Christmas time is a tradition for many people that brings warmth and happiness to their homes. But did you know that this special herb was unknown to Europeans until it was brought back by returning crusaders in the early 1100s? It was a big hit and became a holiday favorite, used in gingerbread and teas.

Heavy meals, also known as feasts, were very common at solstice bonfires. Much of the food we eat today at feasts, including pork (reminiscent of wild boar hunts common in northern Europe) and other meats. At this time of the year, farmers harvested their herds to avoid having to feed them over winter, and the wives harvested all the herbs.

Solstices are easily confused with equinoxes but are not the same thing. Like solstices, equinoxes happen twice a year, occurring in the spring and fall instead of the winter and summer. And while solstices occur during the time when the sun is farthest from the equatorial plane, equinoxes occur at the time when the sun spends the same amount of time at the equatorial plane, giving equal lengths to day and night.

Courtesy of Wikimedia
A crowd gathers at Stonehenge during 2012's winter solstice

In this lifetime, at least once, plan a unique and monumental trip to Stonehenge. During a solstice or equinox, visitors are allowed to freely walk through the ancient stone monument - thanks to English Heritage, the group that oversees Stonehenge.

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