The Winter Solstice, December 21 this year, is the day with the fewest hours of daylight and the longest night of the year; it’s also called the hibernal solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere it can fall on December 20, 21, 22, or 23. Although we'll celebrate it all day long, the solstice is actually the moment in time when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. It will occur at 11:28 a.m. Eastern time this year.
On this day in the Chesapeake region we’ll get about nine and a half hours of sunlight. Contrast that with Fairbanks, AK, which will get less than four hours of light. Also this day, the sun’s daytime maximum elevation is at its lowest. In some parts of Alaska and elsewhere the sun will barely get higher than the horizon.
So starting tomorrow, the days will begin getting longer, but the rate at which the hours of daylight increase isn't the same everywhere. It depends on the latitude of your location. Northern latitudes will experience a more rapid increase in daylight hours compared to more southern latitudes.
The earliest sunset and latest sunrise dates are not the same as the winter solstice. In fact the earliest sunset in our area has already occurred. It happened December 6, and the latest sunrise won’t be until the first week of January. For more on why earliest sunset isn’t on the solstice, click here.
The term comes from the Latin solstitium, meaning the sun stands still. On this day the sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverse its direction as it reaches its southernmost position as seen from the Earth.
In the northern hemisphere the winter solstice is also the start of the winter season for astronomers and scientists. Interestingly, meteorologists call December 1 the first day of winter. This is because astronomical winters are determined by the Earth's orbit around the sun, while meteorological winters are the three calendar months with the lowest average temperatures.
Many cultures, past and present, celebrate festivals and holidays near the Winter Solstice. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman solstice celebration. St. Lucia’s Day is a traditional festival of lights in Scandinavia honoring St. Lucia, one of the earliest Christian martyrs; the Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires symbolized the returning sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honor of the Scandinavian god Thor. Dong Zhi is the Chinese celebration of the winter solstice, meaning “Winter Arrives.” Shab-e Yalda marks the longest night of the year for Iranians all over the world who celebrate the ancient Persian celebration of the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.
Christians all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day, which falls on December 25. In Guatemala on this day, Mayan Indians honor the sun god they worshipped long before they became Christians with a dangerous ritual known as the Polo Voladore, or “flying pole dance.” And in Wiltshire, England, people descend on Stonehenge for the winter solstice because it is aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset.
Local Winter Solstice Hikes:
Venture onto the trails of Anita C. Leight Estuary Center, then warm up by a campfire with roasted treats. $4/person or $16/family. Register by calling (410 612-1688. December 23, 3pm-4:30pm; Abingdon, MD.
Welcome winter with a moderate hike on the Pigs Run, Forest Glen, and Santee Branch Trails. Learn how the park’s forests and wildlife adapt to the cold and snow. Shine only. Call (410) 461-5005 to register. Fun for all ages. December 23, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Catonsville MD.
Welcome winter with a brisk hike through the sanctuary. Enjoy great views of the Patuxent River and watch the sun set over the marsh. Meet at the Jug Bay visitor center. Ages 10 and older. Free with $6 vehicle entrance fee. Registration required at (410) 741-9330 or [email protected]. December 23, 3 p.m.-5 p.m.; Lothian, MD.