When is the winter solstice and what happens? (2023)

ByRoberto Lea

last update

The winter solstice has long marked a time of rebirth, behind which are fascinating astronomical events.

When is the winter solstice and what happens? (1)

Pair chickens:

  • When?
  • What causes the winter solstice?
  • Winter Solstice in the Earth's Hemispheres
  • history and folklore
  • Additional information

This year, the winter solstice will occur on the 21st and 22nd of December. 2023.

The winter solstice, or December solstice, is the point at which the sun's path across the sky is furthest south. At the winter solstice, the sun travels the shortest path across the sky, resulting in the day of the year with less sunlight and therefore the longest night.

In the run-up to the winter solstice, the days grow shorter and shorter, so on solstice night  — in the northern hemisphere it occurs annually on December 21 or 22—  winter begins, according to oneNASA resource(opens in new tab). From there the days get longer and longer until we reach theSummer Solstice, or the June solstice and the longest day of the year.

When is the 2023 winter solstice?

This year, the winter solstice will occur on the 21st and 22nd of December. During the day, the Northern Hemisphere will haveabout 7 hours and 14 minutes of daylight, marking the shortest day of the year. So at 22:27. m. ET (0327 GMT on Dec 22), Earth's axis will have the farthest heading fromthe sun.

To be precise, the winter solstice marks what is known as "astronomical winter", but don't worry, that doesn't mean it will be any colder than any other winter. The nickname is simply adopted to distinguish it from meteorological winter.

While the astronomical change of seasons is related to the Earth's position around the sun and its axis, weather seasons are marked by the first day of a given month. Thus, meteorological winter precedes astronomical winter by three weeks, occurring on December 1st.

Although the winter solstice is an annual event,Terrain fact, it experiences two winter solstices each year. One in the Northern Hemisphere and one in the Southern Hemisphere.

Earth's journey around the sun

When is the winter solstice and what happens? (2)

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According toBritish(opens in new tab), the Earth's axis is tilted by about 23 degrees and without that, our planet would not only have no winter solstice, it would also have no seasons. Earth's axial tilt means that as our planet travels around the sun, different areas of the planet experience varying degrees of sunlight.

Without the axial tilt, the sun would remain directly above the equator and everywhere on the planet would receive the same amount of light throughout the year.

During the winter solstice, the North Pole is tilted about 23.4 degrees to the sun, which means its rays move south from the equator.

To imagine this tilt, imagine that the Earth is attached to a massive northern hemisphere pole, passing through the center of the planet and out into the southern hemisphere.

This pole represents the Earth's axis and looks into space from the northern and southern hemispheres, according to an article published in NASA.look to the skies(opens in new tab)blog. During the month of December, the part of the pole that extends from the northern hemisphere points away from the sun.

Viewing this pole, it quickly becomes obvious that since the north pole is tilted away from our star, the south pole must be tilted towards it.

This means that the winter solstice represents half of our planet's solstices. The other two are the summer solstices, and you might not be surprised to learn that all four solstices are interconnected.

The Winter Solstice: North and South

When is the winter solstice and what happens? (3)

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While the winter solstice occurs on December 21 and 22, 2023 in the northern hemisphere, this date will mark the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere.

Unsurprisingly, while the southern hemisphere experienced its winter solstice on June 21, the northern hemisphere is in the midst of its summer solstice.

Just as the winter solstice marks the point on Earth's axial tilt where it points furthest from the sun, the summer solstice marks the point where our planet is most axially tilted towards our star.

Think of the imaginary "pole of the Earth". If the part of the pole that extends from the northern hemisphere points away from the sun, the part of the pole that extends from the southern hemisphere points towards our star.

During the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, the pole extending from this half of the planet points towards the sun. Thus, in the Southern Hemisphere, this pole points outward.

This reflective nature, almost reflected in the mirror, extends to phenomena involving opposite solstices.

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, the summer solstice marks the longest period of sunlight. After the summer solstice, the days get shorter and shorter, just like the days get longer after the winter solstice. During the summer solstice, the sun appears further north in the sky, the winter solstice, as mentioned, sees it further south.

Today we are aware of the astronomical events that precede the solstices and their effects on the planet and we can imagine cosmic poles crossing our planet. But for our ancestors, these days had an almost supernatural significance, which means that they were not only marked by festivals and celebrations, but often gave rise to dark folk tales.

The Winter Solstice: History and Folklore

When is the winter solstice and what happens? (4)

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The importance of the winter solstice to our ancestors probably stems from the fact that it marked the lengthening of days, leading to its reputation as a time of rebirth.

Due to its importance, there are simply too many winter solstice celebrations and festivals to list. The first that comes to mind for many is the Christian celebration of Christmas. But the birth of Jesus Christ was not always celebrated on the winter solstice. The adoption of the 25th of December was initiated in the year 336 AD. C. by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Historians speculate that this was done by the emperor as a measure to weaken the established pagan celebrations that took place around the winter solstice. The Eastern Empire would not accept the date for around 500 years, and Christmas would not become a major Christian holiday until the 9th century.

Remnants of these eclipsed pagan traditions remain in our Christmas celebrations, for example, and according to thefree dictionary(opens in new tab), the Scandinavian midwinter festival of Juul involved the burning of Juul logs to symbolize the return of the sun, giving rise to the Christmas tradition of Yule Logs.

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, declared byBritish(opens in new tab), begins on Kislev 25, usually falls in December and lasts for eight days, it is also a winter celebration likely influenced by earlier winter solstice celebrations.

With little understanding of the Earth-Sun system and what astronomical bodies were, many of our predecessor's winter solstice celebrations marked ritual celebrations of death and rebirth or even the theft and return of the sun.

One such story is the Finnish myth revolving around Louhi, a powerful and wicked witch who ruled the mythical northern kingdom of Pohjola. In the myth, Louhi steals the sun and theluaaway, keeping them captive inside a mountain, causing the daylight decline that precedes the winter solstice.

Of course, the superstitious aspects of the winter solstice have diminished as our knowledge of thesolar systemand astronomy increased. Now we use heating systems and electric light to contain the cold and darkness of winter and we don't think about the risk of sun theft.

Fortunately, however, some traditions remain. The festivals around the winter solstice still mark a time for us to come together and celebrate, even after all our advances and the defeat of superstition by science.

Additional information

Explore the difference between the equinox and the solstice with theUK Met office(opens in new tab). Learn how to make your own "suntrack" solstice and equinox model withNASA and the Stanford Solar Center(opens in new tab). Discover 11 interesting facts about the June solstice withhour and date(opens in new tab).

Join our space forumsto continue talking about the latest missions, the night sky and much more! And if you have suggestions, corrections or comments, let us know at:comunidad@espacio.com.

When is the winter solstice and what happens? (5)

Roberto Lea

contributing writer

RobertLeais is a UK science journalist whose articles have appeared in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes on science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a BA in Physics and Astronomy from the UK Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

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