The winter solstice is marked by the point at which the North Pole is at its farthest from the sun during its yearly orbit around the sun. It will be approximately 23 degrees away from the sun. Despite the temperature outside, the winter solstice is considered the astronomical beginning of winter. Meteorological winter begins December 1 and lasts until the end of February and is marked by the coldest average temperatures during the year.
Depending on how far north a person is in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter solstice, their day can range from 9.5 hours to absolutely no sunrise at all. On the bright side, the days will gradually become longer in the Northern Hemisphere until the summer solstice in June. In the Southern Hemisphere this same day marks the summer solstice and the Southern Hemisphere’s longest day of the year.
The vernal equinox and the autumnal equinox conventionally mark the beginning of spring and fall respectively and occur when night and day are approximately equal in length.
Around the world since ancient times to modern day, celebrations, festivals, rituals and holidays recognizing the winter solstice have varied from culture to culture.
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Since the marking of time and the earliest calendars, this day marked the hardest time of the year for early people. Survival was paramount when food and heat are not reliable. In all corners of the Earth, there are ancient remains that seem to have been built around marking the winter solstice.
- Probably the most famous is Stonehendge, England. Every year when the sun sets on the winter solstice, the sun’s rays align with two of the giant stones known as the central Altar and the Slaughter stone.
- As the sun rises the day of the winter solstice, its rays illuminate the main chambers of the monument dating back to 3200 B.C. at Newgrange, Ireland.
- In Tulum, Mexico an ancient Mayan city stands deserted. At the top of one of these buildings a small hole casts a starburst when the sun rises on the winter and summer solstices.