The Winter Solstice has been celebrated in some way or another for thousands of years. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is often connected with various religious holy days. Pagan religions associated the winter solstice with significant life changes, intricately linked with the universe and fates that determined the future and effected those lives. This significance can also be found in the Southern Hemisphere, where the Winter Solstice takes place in June.
For science-enthusiasts the winter solstice is an interesting astronomical occurrence that offers an opportunity to celebrate what we have managed to learn about the cosmos and affords us an opportunity to revel in the excitement of space exploration and the complexity of the universe.
Winter Solstice marks that day when there is less daylight than at any other time of the year. We commonly refer to it as the shortest day. The Summer Solstice, on the other hand, is the day with the most daylight (the longest day).
The Origin of Solstice Celebrations
"Solstice" comes from two Latin words: sol (meaning sun) and sistere (to cause to stand still).
The annual seasons occur because of two characteristics of our planet:
1) a 23.5° tilt of the earth's axis makes the earth rotate like a gyroscope, so it points continuously in a fixed direction-toward the area of space near the North Star
2) the earth continuously revolves around the sun in an elliptical orbit-once every 365.25 of our solar days.
As a result, for half of the year the Southern Hemisphere is more exposed to the sun than the Northern Hemisphere, and for the other half of the year the reverse is true. At noontime in the Northern Hemisphere the sun appears high in the sky during summer and low in the sky during winter. The sun reaches its maximum elevation on the day with the greatest number of daylight hours; this day is called the summer solstice, and is typically on June 21-the first day of summer.
The lowest elevation occurs on or about December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere and June 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the Winter Solstice -- the first day of winter, when nighttime hours are at a maximum.
Winter was a very arduous time for Aboriginal people during prehistoric times. With the end of the growing season tribes had to live off of stored food and whatever animals they could trap. People were troubled as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon. Eventually, they feared, it could disappear completely and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. With the passing of the winter solstice and the rising of the sun in the noon sky, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun strengthening once more. Many months of cold weather still remained before the spring thaw, but they realized that the return of the warm season was inevitable. For this reason, the concept of birth and death/rebirth became associated with the Winter Solstice. Aboriginal people had no elaborate instruments to detect it, but they were able to notice a slight elevation of the sun's path within a few days after the solstice, so, celebrations were often timed for about the 25th of December.
In the United States there has been a recent increase in solstice observances by atheists and freethinkers. For example, the American Atheists and local atheist groups organized celebrations for December 2000, including the Great North Texas Infidel Bash in Weatherford, Texas; the Winter Solstice bash in Roselle, New Jersey; the Winter Solstice Parties in York, Pennsylvania, Boise, Idaho, North Bethesda, Maryland, and Des Moines, Iowa; the Winter Solstice Gatherings in Phoenix, Arizona and Denver, Colorado: and a Year End Awards and Review Dinner in San Francisco. Even freethinkers who do not consider themselves atheists can celebrate the Winter Solstice as an alternative to more religious, and commercialized, holidays at this time of year. The Winter Solstice can be a time to exchange gifts with a science/educational theme, to send friends and family Solstice Cards, to tell about experiences as a freethinker, and to socialize through food and fun.
The Date and Time of the Winter Solstice
The exact date varies from year to year and may occur between the 20th and 23rd of December.
Upcoming Winter Solstice Dates and Times:
Note: Times are in UT (Universal Time)