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Winter solstice: The longest night of the year marks a time of rebirth

Today, December 21, marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The astronomical moment when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun will occur at 10:27 p.m. ET. 

Due to this extreme tilt, we will experience the shortest day and longest night of the year.

“All locations north of the equator see daylight shorter than 12 hours and all locations south see daylight longer than 12 hours,” explains NASA.

Environmental impact of winter solstice

On the winter solstice, the sun takes the shortest path through the sky, and its lowest arc in the sky at noon. 

Regions near the Arctic and Antarctic circles experience polar night around the solstice, meaning the sun doesn’t rise for more than 24 hours.

The winter solstice also signals significant environmental changes. It marks the beginning of winter, a season characterized by colder temperatures and, in many regions, snowfall.

This seasonal shift impacts ecosystems, influencing animal behaviors such as migration and hibernation.

Despite being the shortest day of the year, it’s not typically the coldest. There’s a lag between the shortest day and the lowest average temperatures due to the oceans’ slow release of accumulated heat.

The solstice can affect animal behavior, with some species using the shorter day as a cue for hibernation or migration.

Myths and legends 

The winter solstice has been celebrated in various cultures around the world with festivals, rituals, and other observances, recognizing the gradual return of sunlight after the longest period of darkness. 

This significant astronomical event has inspired various myths and legends throughout history. 

Yule and the Wild Hunt

In Norse mythology, the winter solstice, known as Yule, is associated with the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession in the winter sky led by the god Odin. It was a time of both fear and celebration, marking the death of the old year and the birth of the new.


Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, held around the time of the winter solstice. It was a time of merrymaking, feasting, and social reversal where traditional roles were often relaxed.

The Return of the Sun

Many Native Americans have celebrated the winter solstice as the time when the sun god began his recovery from illness, symbolizing the return of longer days.

St. Lucia’s Day 

In Scandinavian countries, the winter solstice is associated with St. Lucia’s Day, honoring the Christian martyr who brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs using a candle-lit wreath to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible.

Dongzhi Festival 

The Dongzhi Festival, or the Winter Solstice Festival, is one of the most important festivals celebrated by the Chinese and other East Asians. It’s a time for family reunions and a celebration of the year’s harvest, with the belief that the positive energy of the longer daylight hours to come will bring good luck.


Stonehenge in the United Kingdom is aligned with the sunset of the winter solstice. While its exact purpose remains a mystery, it’s believed to have been used for religious and ceremonial events, possibly linked to the solstice.

Alban Arthan

In Welsh and Celtic tradition, Alban Arthan, meaning “Light of Winter,” was a time to celebrate the rebirth of the sun, marking the turning point where the days start to lengthen and the power of the sun begins to grow.

Shab-e Yalda 

In Persian culture, Shab-e Yalda or Yalda night is celebrated on the longest night of the year. It’s a time when families gather together to eat, drink, and read poetry, especially by the poet Hafez, until well after midnight to fend off evil spirits.

These myths and legends reflect the importance of the winter solstice in various cultural and historical contexts, often symbolizing rebirth, renewal, and the triumph of light over darkness.

More than just a day

In summary, the winter solstice is a confluence of astronomical, cultural, environmental, and scientific significance. It reminds us of our planet’s incredible journey around the sun and the diverse ways in which different cultures interpret and celebrate this celestial event.

As we experience the shortest day of the year, it’s a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the brighter days ahead.


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