This Friday, Dec. 21, will be the darkest day of the year — in terms of minutes of sunlight — as the Winter Solstice arrives. Occurring at the moment the North Pole is tilted the farthest away from the sun, the solstice marks not only the beginning of the winter, but also the rebirth of the sun. The solstice occurs at 5:23 p.m. Eastern Time, and residents of that area will see nine hours and 50 minutes of daylight.
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The good news is that starting Saturday, we get a bit more sunlight every day until the Summer Solstice, when the days get shorter again.
The Winter Solstice, the oldest known winter celebration, is derived from the Latin word “solstitium,” which means “sun standing still.” On the Winter Solstice, the sun seems to stand still directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, which is 23.5 degrees south of the equator. During the summer solstice, which occurs in June, the is directly over the Tropic of Cancer.
Here are five things to know about the Winter Solstice:
1. The Winter Solstice is the oldest known winter celebration. In ancient times, it was both spiritually and scientifically important and marked the changing of the seasons. The best place in the world to observe the Winter Solstice is at the prehistoric monument Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, believed to have been erected by ancient Celtic druids to line up the exact position of the sunset on the Winter Solstice.
2. The Winter Solstice may explain why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in December. The Bible isn’t specific about when Jesus was born, and some people believe Dec. 25 may have been selected as the date of Christ’s birth by Pope Julius I to replace the ancient pagan Roman midwinter festival called “Saturnalia” with a Christian holiday.
The late Harry Yeide, who taught religion at George Washington University for nearly 50 years and died in 2013, once told National Geographic that as the Christmas celebration moved west, “the date that had been used to celebrate the Winter Solstice became sort of available for conversion to the observance of Christmas.”
Several of the rituals associated with Christmas — dinner feasts, gift-giving and decorative wreaths, for example — are rooted in pagan Winter Solstice rituals.
3. The earliest sunsets and latest sunrises don’t occur on the Winter Solstice. It seems counterintuitive, but as Earthsky.org explains it, the key is understanding solar noon, the time of day the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. In early December, true solar noon occurs 10 minutes earlier on the clock than it does at the solstice. When true noon occurs later on the solstice, so do the sunrise and sunset times.
“It’s this discrepancy between clock time and sun time that causes the Northern Hemisphere’s earliest sunset and the Southern Hemisphere’s earliest sunrise to precede the December solstice,” Earthsky.org says. “The discrepancy occurs primarily because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis. A secondary but another contributing factor to this discrepancy between clock noon and sun noon comes from the Earth’s elliptical — oblong — orbit around the sun.
“The Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle, and when we’re closest to the sun, our world moves fastest in orbit. Our closest point to the sun — or perihelion – comes in early January. So we are moving fastest in orbit around now, slightly faster than our average speed of about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) per second. The discrepancy between sun time and clock time is greater around the December solstice than the June solstice because we’re nearer the sun at this time of year.”
4. ‘Tis the season for freaky long shadows. Because the sun is at its lowest arc across the horizon, it will cast long shadows. Shadows at noontime on the day of the solstice will be the longest of the year.
5. Full moons and the Winter Solstice rarely align. The Old Farmer’s Almanac said that since it began tracking heavenly events and seasonal changes in 1793, a Winter Solstice full moon has occurred only 10 times. The next time it will happen is in 2094.
However, this year the full moon and Winter Solstice will almost occur simultaneously. The December full moon, which is referred to as the Cold Moon, will appear on Saturday, Dec. 22. Technically, the Winter Solstice moon will be a waxing gibbous moon, a lunar phase associated with growth, development and progress.
Image: One of the best places in the world to celebrate the Winter Solstice is at the Stonehenge monument near Wiltshire, England, where druids, pagans and revellers gather every year. The event is claimed to be more important in the pagan calendar than the summer solstice, because it marks the “rebirth” of the sun for the new year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)