Winter solstice: The shortest day and longest night

J. H. Osborne • Dec 21, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Winter officially begins for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere today at 11:19 p.m. EST, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.

That’s when the winter solstice arrives, marking the astronomical moment when the sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn, and we have our shortest day and longest night of the year in terms of daylight.

The Longest Night

First United Methodist Church, 621 Old Stage Road, Surgoinsville, will be hosting a “longest night service” from 7 to 8 p.m.

“The Christmas season is a joyful time for families to gather and for churches to worship, pointing to the hope that is found in the coming of the Christ child,” Rev. Elaine Ruth told the Times News in an email inviting the public to tonight’s service. “However, this is also a time of pain and hurt for those who have experienced loss or difficulty in recent years. Join us for a special Christmas service of comfort for those of us who are grieving or struggling this time of year.”

What Does “Solstice” Mean?

The term “solstice” comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) because during the solstice, the angle between the sun’s rays and the plane of the Earth’s equator (called declination) appears to stand still.

So What Does That Mean, Exactly?

Upon the winter solstice, the sun appears at its lowest in the sky, and its noontime elevation seems to stay the same for several days before and after this day. The sun’s gradual decrease in the sky reverses upon the winter solstice, marking what many cultures believe to be a “rebirth” of the sun as the hours of daylight become longer.

Early man kept track of the days by observing the sun as it moved across the sky and cast shadows during the day and at different times of the year. In fact, historians believe Stonehenge in England was erected to keep track of the sun’s yearly progress.

Check your noontime shadow around the time of the solstice: It will be your longest noontime shadow of the year.

The Good News

Essentially, our hours of daylight — the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset — have been growing slightly shorter each day since the summer solstice back in June, which is the longest day of the year (at least in terms of daylight). After Dec. 21st, the days will begin to grow longer and will continue to do so until we reach the summer solstice again and begin the whole cycle anew.

Winter Solstice Folklore and Celebrations

The winter solstice has played an important role in cultures worldwide from ancient times until today. In fact, many of the customs, lore, symbols, and rituals associated with Christmas are actually related to winter solstice celebrations of ancient pagan cultures. Learn more about them here: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/winter-solstice-first-day-winter.

What’s the difference between a solstice and an equinox? Find out here: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/equinox-solstice-34539.

Sources: The Farmers’ Almanac; First United Methodist Church, Surgoinsville.

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