Winter Solstice: The shortest day and longest night of the year | CNN


Since the summer solstice back in June, the days are getting shorter and the nights are longer in the Northern Hemisphere. But it’s about to turn itself around.

Winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the official first day of winter, is on Thursday, December 21st, this year (well, for most of America). How the solstices move along with the spring and fall equinoxes has fascinated people for thousands of years.

It is a day where science mixes with ancient traditions around the world.

Solstices and the Earth’s hemispheres

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere, when the sun appears in its southernmost position, directly above the Tropic of Capricorn.

The situation is the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where only about 10% of the world’s population lives.

There, the December solstice marks the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer in places like Argentina, Madagascar, New Zealand and South Africa.

The solstice usually but not always occurs on December 21. The date that the solstice occurs can move forward or backward by one day because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to appear again in the same visible location from Earth) does not match up to the exact year of our calendar.

If you want to be more precise in your observations, the exact time of the 2023 winter solstice around the world is 3:27 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) Thursday, according to and the Farmers Almanac.

Due to time zone differences, Europe, Africa and Asia will technically mark their winter solstice on Friday, December 22. Below are some examples of when 3:27 UTC is for various locales time around the Northern Hemisphere:

Tokyo, Japan: 12:27 pm Friday
Bangkok, Thailand: 10:27 am Friday
Kolkata, India: 8:57 am Friday
Istanbul, Turkey: 6:27 am Friday
Helsinki, Finland: 5:27 am Friday
Milan, Italy: 4:27 am Friday
Halifax, Nova Scotia: 11:27 pm Thursday
Baltimore, Maryland: 10:27 pm Thursday
Mexico City: 9:27 pm Thursday
San Francisco, California: 7:27 pm Thursday
Honolulu, Hawaii: 5:27 pm Thursday

To check the time where you live, the EarthSky website has a conversion table available or plug your city here into the Converted Time box.

Sunlight decreases dramatically the closer you are to the North Pole at the winter solstice.

People in balmySingapore, just 137 kilometers or 85 miles north of the equator, hardly notice the difference, which has nine minutes of daylight than during the summer solstice. It’s almost a 12 hour day, give or take a few minutes, all year round there.

Higher latitude, Parisstill logs a respectable eight hours and 14 minutes of sunlight to enjoy a chilly walk along the Seine.

The contrast is starker in frigidOslo, Norway, where the sun rises at 9:17 a.m. and sets at 3:11 p.m., resulting in less than six hours of anemic sunlight. Sun lamp, anyone?

Residents of Nome, Alaska, will lose more sunlight with three hours and 54 minutes of very weak sunlight. But that’s pretty generous compared to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It sits inside the Arctic Circle and does not see a single ray of sunlight.

These three images from NOAA's GOES East (GOES-16) satellite show us what Earth looks like from space near the winter solstice.  The images were captured about 24 hours before the 2018 winter solstice.

Because the Earth is tilted on its rotational axis, we have changing seasons. As the planet moves around the sun, each hemisphere experiences winter when it is tilted away from the sun and summer when it is tilted toward the sun.

Scientists are not entirely sure how this happened, but they think that billions of years ago, while the solar system was forming, the Earth was subjected to violent collisions that caused it to tilt on its axis.

It’s no wonder that many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or pagan festivals that coincide with the return of longer days.

Ancient people whose survival depended on accurate knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal.

Christmas takes many of its customs and probably its date on the calendar from the pagan Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Kalends, Maria Kennedy, assistant teaching professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University, told CNN Travel in an email.

Saturnalia begins on Dec. 17 and the Calendar begins on Jan. 1, said Kennedy, who specializes in Christmas studies.

Citing academic research, Kennedy said the early founders of the Christian church condemned the practices of these holidays, but their popularity has endured. The Christian celebration of Christmas eventually coincided with the same time of the calendar although there is no specific date set in the Gospels for the birth of Jesus.

Here’s more on some of the old customs:

A woman sings as people gather to witness the winter solstice on December 21, 2022, at Newgrange, Ireland.

In the Welsh language, Alban Arthan means Winter Light, according to the Farmers Almanac. It is probably the oldest seasonal festival of mankind. Part of Druidic traditions, the winter solstice is considered a time of death and rebirth.

Newgrange, a prehistoric monument built in Ireland around 3200 BC, is associated with the festival of Alban Arthan.

In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia lasted seven days. It honors Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

The people enjoyed carnival-like festivities similar to modern Mardi Gras celebrations and even delayed their war-making. Slaves were granted temporary freedom, and moral restrictions were eased. Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD.

Ancient Europeans were not the only ones to mark the annual occasion. The Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival originates from ancient Chinese culture. The name translates roughly as severe winter.

They think it is the tip of yin (from Chinese medicine theory). Yin represents darkness and cold and stillness, hence the longest winter day.

Dongzhi marks the return of yang and the slow rise of light and warmth. Dumplings are often eaten to celebrate some East Asian cultures.

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