What Is Winter Solstice and How Is It Celebrated Around the World?

This week, on December 21, people living in the northern hemisphere will get to experience the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year.

The winter solstice is a historically significant event in the field of astronomy—for astronomers it marks the start of winter, which lasts until the spring equinox in March.

While the winter may bring cold, dark days, the winter solstice means that from Wednesday onwards, the days are actually going to get longer and longer, and they'll keep doing so until the summer solstice in the middle of 2022.

The winter solstice happens when the northern hemisphere of the Earth is tilted as far away from the sun as possible.

This means that for those in that hemisphere the sun passes through the sky at its lowest altitude. The exact moment of the winter solstice is when the north pole points directly away from the sun, which is due to occur at 10:59 a.m. ET on Tuesday, according to TimeAndDate.com.

Meanwhile in the southern hemisphere, the winter solstice doesn't occur until June 20 or 21, at the same time that the northern hemisphere is experiencing the summer solstice.

The winter solstice has been marked by celebrations around the world for many years.

Some like Inti Raymi in Peru are still marked today—a celebration around the winter solstice of the southern hemisphere (and thus in June) of the Inca sun god Inti.

Another example is the Feast of Juul, a pre-Christian festival in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice in which the sun's light and heat was represented by fires. Modern traditions like the Yule log can be linked back to this historic celebration.

In China, people celebrate the traditional holiday of Dongzhi, which acknowledges the arrival of winter.

A Time of Celebration

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it's a time for people to get together and celebrate the year they had and it's thought to have started with workers returning from fields at the end of their harvest and spending time with their families.

Winter solstice celebrations may even have gone back to prehistoric times. This is suggested by Stonehenge, a prehistoric stone circle located in Salisbury, England.

Architecturally sophisticated, the circle looks as though it was designed in such a way that during the winter solstice the sun would have set between certain stones in the circle, according to English Heritage.

Likewise, during the summer solstice the sun rises behind one of the stones and its rays shine into the heart of the circle.

Excavations have also suggested that people held huge feasts around the time of the winter solstice.

Person holding mug in snow
A file photo of a person wearing gloves while holding a mug. The winter solstice marks the start of winter and the shortest day. ArtShotPhoto/Getty