What Is the Winter Solstice?

The Winter Solstice is nearly upon us, which means we're almost officially in the coldest season. The Solstice also signals the shortest day of the year, the longest night of the year and has historically been celebrated with a number of different traditions and rituals.

According to the Farmer's Almanac, the Winter Solstice is the "astronomical moment when the Sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn." During this occurrence, we experience "our shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere in terms of daylight." The sun appears at the lowest point in the sky of the year. (Fun fact: Because of the sun's placement, your shadow will appear the "tallest" that it can be the day of the Winter Solstice at noon).

The Winter Solstice happens either on December 21 or 22 every year. This year, it takes place in the northern hemisphere on Monday, December 21, at 5:02 a.m. EST.

Winter Solstice
Snow blankets the Boston Common as the first winter storm of the season impacts the region on December 3, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Though it is is the shortest and darkest day of the year, there are (literally) brighter days ahead. After the Winter Solstice, we begin to experience increasingly longer "days" (meaning amounts of sunlight) until the Summer Solstice in June.

According to the Farmer's Almanac, the word "solstice" stems from the Latin words "sol," meaning "sun," and "sistere," which means "to stand still."

Historians believe that Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, was built to track the sun's movement, since the stones are set up in alignment to both the Winter and Summer solstices.

There are different celebrations for the Winter Solstice all throughout the world. One such festival is Alban Arthan, the name of which is Welsh for "The Light of Winter." Druidic beliefs treat the solstice as the start of a new year; it's thought of as a time when the older year's sun "dies," during the December 21 sunset, and a new one is born with the sunrise on December 22, thus marking a new year.

Scandinavians treated the Winter Solstice as a reason to celebrate the Feast of Juul. As noted by the Farmer's Almanac, a Juul log (which, maybe you would better recognize as a "Yule log") would be burnt, in recognition of "the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning Sun" and to pay tribute to the Scandinavian god of Thor. The domestic tradition of burning a Yule log is thought to derive from this ancient feast.

Meanwhile, over in Ancient Rome, the Saturnalia festival took place in the days leading up to the Winter Solstice, in observance of Saturn, the god of harvest and agriculture.

What makes the 2020 Winter Solstice extra special this year is that the so-called "Christmas Star" will be visible. It's actually a rare planetary alignment, in which Saturn and Jupiter are expected to line up and come so close to Earth that they'll look like an especially bright star. Stargazers should catch the sight while they can, since this close of an alignment between those two planets apparently hasn't occurred in nearly 800 years.