Winter solstice

Winter solstice
LHS sunstones.jpg
Lawrence Hall of Science visitors observe sunset on the day of the winter solstice using the Sunstones II..
Also calledMidwinter, Yule, the Longest Night, Jól
Observed byVarious cultures
TypeCultural, astronomical
SignificanceAstronomically marks the beginning of lengthening days and shortening nights
CelebrationsFestivals, spending time with loved ones, feasting, singing, dancing, fires
Dateabout December 21 (NH)
about June 21. (SH)
FrequencyTwice a year (once in the northern hemisphere, once in the southern hemisphere, six months apart)
Related toWinter festivals and the solstice

The winter solstice (or hibernal solstice), also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere (Northern and Southern). For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky.[1] At the pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around the winter solstice. Its opposite is the summer solstice.

The winter solstice occurs during the hemisphere's winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the December solstice (usually 21 or 22 December) and in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the June solstice (usually 20 or 21 June). Although the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment, the term sometimes refers to the day on which it occurs. Other names are "midwinter", the "extreme of winter" (Dongzhi), or the "shortest day". Traditionally, in many temperate regions, the winter solstice is seen as the middle of winter, but today in some countries and calendars, it is seen as the beginning of winter. In meteorology, winter is reckoned as beginning about three weeks before the winter solstice.[2]

Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures, and has been marked by festivals and rituals.[3] It marked the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun.[4][5][6] The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.

Seasonal lag is the term relating the lag shift between the coldest winter weather and the winter solstice. As latitude increases, midwinter correlates more closely with the winter solstice.[citation needed]

History and cultural significance

Japanese Sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from a cave (by Kunisada)
Winter solstice occurs in December for the northern hemisphere, and June for the southern hemisphere.

The solstice may have been a special moment of the annual cycle for some cultures even during neolithic times. Astronomical events were often used to guide activities, such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this.

This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange 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 (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, i.e. its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.[7]

The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), 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 plentiful supply of fresh meat was available.[8] 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 at the beginning of the pagan day, which in many cultures fell on the previous eve.[citation needed]

Because the event was 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. In cultures which used cyclic calendars based on the winter solstice, the "year as reborn" was celebrated with reference to life-death-rebirth deities or "new beginnings" such as Hogmanay's redding, a New Year cleaning tradition. Also "reversal" is yet another frequent theme, as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals.

Indian

Makara Sankranti, also known as Makaraa Sankrānti (Sanskrit: मकर संक्रांति) or Maghi, is a festival day in the Hindu calendar, in reference to deity Surya (sun). It is observed each year in January.[9] It marks the first day of Sun's transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days.[9][10]

Iranian

Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice as, "Yalda night", which is known to be the "longest and darkest night of the year". Yalda night celebration, or as some call it "Shabe Chelleh" ("the 40th night"), is one the oldest Iranian traditions that has been present in Persian culture from the ancient years. In this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the eldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reciting poetry (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are particularly served during this festival.

Pagan

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day "midwinter" (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest). Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log, and others, are direct descendents of Yule customs. Scandinavians still call Christmas "Jul". In English, the word "Yule" is often used in combination with the season "yuletide" [11] a usage first recorded in 900. It is believed that the celebration of this day was a worship of these peculiar days, interpreted as the reawakening of nature. The Yule (Jul) particular god was Jólner, which is one of Odin's many names.

The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem[which?] to Harold Hårfager from about AD 900, where someone said "drinking Yule". Julblot is the most solemn sacrifice feast. At the Yule blót, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops. The Yule blót was eventually integrated into the Christian Christmas. As a remainder from this Viking era, the Midsummer is still important in Scandinavia, and hence vividly celebrated.

Roman cult of Sol

Sol Invictus ("The Unconquered Sun/Invincible Sun") was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian. His holiday is traditionally celebrated on December 25, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions.[12] It has been speculated to be the reason behind Christmas' proximity to the solstice.[13]

East Asian

In East Asia, the winter solstice has been celebrated as one of the Twenty-four Solar Terms, called Dongzhi in Chinese. In Japan, in order not to catch cold in the winter, there is a custom to soak oneself in a yuzu hot bath (Japanese: 柚子湯 = Yuzuyu). [14] In India, this occasion, known as Ayan Parivartan (Sanskrit: अयन परिवर्तन), is celebrated by religious Hindus as a holy day, with Hindus performing customs such as bathing in holy rivers, giving alms and donations, and praying to God and doing other holy deeds.

Other Languages