The winter solstice is Dec. 21 for the northern hemisphere -- but what exactly is the winter solstice? And why is it important?
What happens during the winter solstice?
The winter solstice marks “peak darkness” for the Northern Hemisphere. So it is the shortest day and the longest night for that hemisphere during the year.
Why does this happen?
The Earth is on a tilted axis as it orbits around the sun, so the hemispheres receive a different amount of sun exposure depending on where the earth is on its yearly orbit. That’s also why we have the seasons -- fall and winter coincide with less sun exposure, while spring and summer correlate with more sun exposure.
When, exactly, is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice goes down at 11:28 a.m. EST on Dec. 21 -- which is when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. At that moment, the North Pole is tilted the farthest it can be away from the Sun.
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It comes from the word “solstitium” in Latin, which translates as “sun standing.” During the solstice the sun appears to standstill before it reverses in direction.
How long is it daytime during the winter solstice?
In Philadelphia, sunrise is slated for 7:19 a.m.. In Harrisburg, sunrise is 7:27 a.m. In Pittsburgh, it’ll occur around 7:40 a.m. Sunset is 4:39 p.m. in Philadelphia, 4:45 p.m. in Harrisburg and 4:57 p.m. in Pittsburgh. So you’ll have a little more than nine hours of sunshine in Pennsylvania.
What's going on in the Southern Hemisphere during this time?
The reverse, basically. The winter solstice is the longest day of the year for the Southern Hemisphere. Technically, it’s the summer solstice for the Southern Hemisphere. That is why some people refer to the solstices based on the months they occur in, rather than the season -- so this is the December solstice.
How do you celebrate the solstice?
By feasting! The Romans used to celebrate Saturnalia during the solstice, which meant gift-giving and public banquets. The Scandinavian Feast of Juul was also during the winter solstice. In addition to dining well, people would light a Juul log (what we call today a Yule log), which would burn until it was just a pile of ashes -- at which point the ashes would be used as fertilizer in the fields, or kept as charms. There were also lots of bonfires. The Iranian festival of Yalda occurs during the solstice too. During Yalda, families stay up all night eating, drinking, reading poetry and sharing mythological stories.
People gather on the winter solstice for a remembrance for more than 200 homeless and formerly homeless Philadelphians who died in the past year, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Does the solstice coincide with another day?
As the longest night of the year, the winter solstice serves as Homeless Memorial Day. There will be vigils and services throughout the country to honor those homeless people who died in the past year. In Philadelphia, a memorial will be held at 5 p.m. outside the Municipal Services Building (1401 JFK Blvd.). It is organized by Project Home.
Is Stonehenge somewhat involved?
No one really knows -- because no one really knows why Stonehenge was made. But, the stone formations are aligned with the sunset during the winter solstice and the sun does rise directly above the Heel Stone during the summer solstice.
During the solstice, though, there is a celebration at Stonehenge, which is free for pagans to visit.
Compiled by Julia Hatmaker | [email protected]