Wednesday , September 28 2022

Happy Winter Solstice 2018! Traditions, rituals and meanings behind the UK's shortest day of the year


If you're getting sick of how early it gets dark in the UK, you'll be happy to hear that we've reached the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year.

The solstice marks the moment the sun shines over the tropic of the capricorn – its most southern point.

Thankfully, once the winter solstice has passed, the days will begin getting more longer.

Here's your guide to the darkest day of the year, including when it is, and how it's celebrated around the world.

When is the winter Solstice?

In 2018, the solstice takes place on Friday, December 21.

The solstice occurs at 22:23 GMT in the Northern Hemisphere.

The date of the winter solstice is different every year, but always falls between December 20th and 23rd.

The sunrise over the Vale of Belvoir, as Leicestershire, as Britons were warned to brace themselves for fresh offense today as snow freezes over
Sunrise over the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire

What is the winter solstice?

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year.

To be precise, the solstice itself is the moment the sun is shining farthest to the south, directly over the tropic of the capricorn.

In other words it's when the North Pole is tilted farthest away from the sun, giving us the fewest hours of sunlight.

The shortest day lasts 7 hours 49 minutes and 41 minutes in Britain.

That's 8 hours, 49 minutes shorter than the June solstice.

Thursday, December 20 is the longest night of the year – and the sun rises at 08.03 am GMT on Friday morning.

The day after the lengthening of days.

But in the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite is true. Dawn is early and dusk is late so they experience their longest day and shortest night.

Definition of 'solstice'

The term solstice comes from the Latin word 'solstitium' meaning 'sun standing still'. The Sun appears to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then changes direction as it reaches the most southern point as seen from Earth.

Others use the word sunturn.

Is this the first day of winter?

This depends. There's the astronomical and meteorological winter.

Astronomical – starts December 21 and ends March 19. Determined by the Earth's orbit around the sun.

Meteorological – starts December 1 and ends February 28 (February 29 in a Leap year). Three calendar months with the lowest temperatures.

Traditions and rituals

Pagans have celebrated the winter solstice for thousands of years.

There's an annual event at Stonehenge, where those celebrating go to the sunrise on the shortest day.

Many of the traditions we now think of as part of Christmas – including Yule logs, mistletoe and Christmas trees – have their roots in the pagan weddings of the winter solstice.

The Druids – the cultures of ancient Celts – used evergreen trees, holly and mistletoe as symbols of everlasting life during winter solstice rituals.

Cutting them down and putting them in their homes would have been too destructive to nature.

But when Saint Boniface, also known as Winfrith of Crediton, found a group of pagans worshiping an oak tree in 8th Century Germany, he cut the tree down.

Christmas trees have their roots in winter solstice celebrations

Some say he then planted a fir tree on the pagans converted – others that a fir tree sprang up on the spot.

Myth has it converted pagans in the area the next year to decorate the fir tree.

Stonehenge and the Solstice

So why Stonehenge?

People arrive in their droves to the Wiltshire monument to mark the winter solstice, but why?

Stonehenge is aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset.

Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC. It's believed the people who made it more important on the winter solstice than the summer solstice.

Winter solstice was when cattle were killed so they would not have to be fed in winter and wine and beer was fermented too.

Chief Druid Arthur Pendragon leads the Winter Solstice service at Stonehenge
Chief Druid Arthur Pendragon leads the Winter Solstice service at Stonehenge

The other megalithic monuments that align with the sun are:

New Grange, in County Meath, Ireland, which points to the winter solstice sunrise.

Maeshowe, Mainland, Orkney, Scotland, which also faces the winter solstice sunrise.

Goseck Circle aligns with both the sunrise and sunset.

What celebrations are there this year?

English Heritage opens up Stonehenge for those who want to visit and you can see the sunrise and sunset for yourself too.

To work out where you can check this website which has a break down by city giving you the places to get the best view.

Winter solstice poems

  • A Christmas Carol – Christina Rossetti
  • Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind – William Shakespeare
  • Winter-Time – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost
  • Winter Song – Wilfred Owen

Will the days start getting longer again?

Yes. After the solstice, the days will gradually get up to the summer solstice on Friday, 21 June 2019.

When is the the summer solstice?

The summer solstice, also known as midsummer, will take place on 21 June in 2019.

On this day, the sun will shine directly over the tropic of can

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