Today is a special day in the Northern Hemisphere, because it is the shortest day of the year—the winter solstice. After December 21, the hours of daylight will gradually increase until we reach the summer solstice, or first day of summer in June, which is the longest day of the year.
My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to England and visit the great stone circle of Stonehenge and also to Ireland for a visit to the ancient passage tomb of Newgrange. Both sites are temples and calendars built in ancient times for pagan worship and ceremonies. They mark the winter solstice or rebirth of the sun.
The science behind a winter solstice
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, when the sun appears at its most southerly position, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn. It marks the longest day of the year in the Southern Hemisphere.
When exactly does it occur?
The solstice usually takes place on December 21. The time that the solstice occurs and the day itself can shift because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same spot as seen from Earth) doesn’t exactly match our calendar year.
What causes the winter solstice to even happen?
Because the Earth is tilted on its rotational axis, we experience seasons here on Earth. As the Earth moves around the sun, each hemisphere experiences winter when it’s tilted away from the sun and summer when it’s tilted toward the sun.
Wait. Why is the Earth tilted?
Scientists are not entirely sure how this occurred, but they think that billions of years ago, as the solar system was taking shape, the Earth was subject to violent collisions that caused the axis to tilt.
What other seasonal transitions do we mark?
The equinoxes, both spring and fall, mark when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator, where we have equal length of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are farthest north over the Tropic of Cancer, giving us our longest day and summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
Winter solstice traditions and celebrations
It’s no surprise many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday — whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or pagan festivals — that coincides with the return of the sun and longer days to come.
Ancient peoples whose survival depended on a precise knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal, a casting off of old habits and negative feelings and an embracing of hope amid darkness as the days once again begin to grow longer.
Many of the ancient symbols and ceremonies of the solstice live on today. Here are five extraordinary places to experience something magical during winter’s relentlessly long night:
UNITED KINGDOM: Cornwall and Stonehenge
Better known for pirates than the solstice, the town of Penzance on the southwest coast of England has revived a delightful array of Cornish solstice events leading up to December 21. The Montol Festival is a fun mix of pagan customs and more recent Christmas traditions that were once common throughout Cornwall.
Early in the week, join in caroling and other events. On the solstice, referred to here as Montol Eve, get your dancing card ready for the Guise, a community dance in which people dress in masks and other “topsy-turvy” disguises based on a 19th-century tradition of the rich dressing in rags while poorer citizens effected a “mock posh” look.
You can also don your finery for torchlit processions. The merrymaking only continues when the revelers disperse to pubs around town.
With some planning, it’s also possible to incorporate a trip to Stonehenge, the UK’s most famous site for solstice celebrations. On the winter solstice, visitors have the rare opportunity to enter the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony run by local pagan and druid groups.