Laura Dean Bennett
This year, and in most recent years, the winter solstice falls on December 21.
It will take place at precisely 11:28 a.m. eastern time.
This will be the exact moment that fall gives way to winter – when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
December 21 isn’t always the date of the solstice.
Thanks to the Earth’s wobble, the date can vary a bit from year-to-year.
This “wobble,” known as the axial precession, shifts the position of the north pole by about one degree every 72 years, which affects the exact date and time of the solstice.
The last time the solstice wasn’t on December 21 was in 2011, when it fell on December 22.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, December 22 was the date of the solstice, but in 2050 and for the rest of the century, December 20 will become the date of the winter solstice.
The winter solstice is also referred to as “midwinter,” “the longest night” and “yule.”
The word solstice is derived from Latin, meaning “sun stands still,” and was chosen because during a solstice the sun appears to remain still in its position in the sky.
When winter solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere, we have the shortest day and longest night of the year.
The opposite is true when the summer solstice occurs. The northern hemisphere experiences its longest day and shortest night.
Perhaps one of the premier places where both solstices are celebrated is Stonehenge.
It’s located in Wiltshire, England, about an hour and a half outside of London, and every year thousands of people come to celebrate the solstice there.
Although much about Stonehenge is a mystery, we know that this ancient monument is aligned with the sunset of the winter solstice sunset and the summer solstice’s sunset as well.
During the rest of the year, English Heritage, the group that oversees it, restricts how close visitors may come to the stones of Stonehenge.
But during solstice and equinox celebrations, visitors may gather and wander at will through the ancient stones.
Rituals for welcoming back the Sun date from the dawn of civilization.
The winter solstice brought people together to celebrate with feasting, music, dance, drama and above all, light and fire.
In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was welcomed with a joyous feast known as the Saturnalia.
By the second century AD, they were celebrating the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” on December 25.
Further north, Scandinavians celebrated “Yule,” at the same time of year.
The name “yule” may have originated with their word for “wheel,” as the sun seemed to move in a daily and an annual wheel.
Many families include a ham in their Christmas feasts.
This tradition actually dates back to the fact that people in the countries of the northern hemisphere did their butchering around the days of the winter solstice.
In pagan times, domesticated animals, especially hogs, were sacrificed to the Germanic goddess Freyr in the hope of a successful harvest and fertility in the new year.
When the Roman Catholic faith swept through Europe, it incorporated the people’s traditions regarding yuletide and solstice celebrations into Christianity.
The exact nature of early Celtic celebrations are not entirely known because in the fourth century A.D., the Church of Rome overlaid the old festival of the solstice – the birth of the Sun – with the birth of Jesus.
As the actual birthday of Jesus had never been certain, after much debate, the church finally chose the ancient midwinter feast as the time to celebrate His birth because so many cultures were used to celebrating at this time of year.
The solstice holiday became the sacred celebration of Christmas.
And many of the solstice traditions that had been practiced for thousands of years continued – and for the same reason – to banish the darkness and welcome back the light.
As the winter solstice marks the beginning of winter, we know that the coldest winter days are yet to come.
As has been done for thousands of years, this is the time of the year that we light our houses with candles and bring in trees and decorate them with lights – maybe not just to celebrate Christmas, but as an ancient impulse to coax back the warmth and light of the sun after the darkest day of the year.
Yes, the darkness seems to want to overwhelm us around this time of year, but after the winter solstice, we can look forward to the gradual lengthening of days.
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org