6 little-known facts about winter solstice


Winter solstice is sneaking up on us just as quickly as stuffed turkeys and Christmas trees. This year's solstice will take place on Thursday, Dec.  21. 

RELATED: Debate settled: This is the right time to put up your Christmas tree

The astronomical phenomenon happens as the earth orbits the sun (see this helpful animation). During the winter, one hemisphere (this applies to North and South) is tilted away from the sun and receives sunlight at a more oblique angle, causing a drop in temperature. 

The winter solstice is the point of earth’s orbit when this trend stops and that hemisphere begins to receive more and more sunlight at a steep angle. This causes temperatures to rise and days to grow longer. 

The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year and is culturally considered the first day of winter. Since ancient times it's been celebrated as a holiday and has helped shape many cultural traditions.

Here are 6 little-known facts about winter solstice:

Winter solstice traces back to ancient history.

Ancient humans noticed the shortening of the days and were terrified that one day there would be no more daylight left. With time, people realized that after this day each year, the sun began moving towards them, again. They began to observe the day in various ways and created traditions to entice the sun to come back, known as solstice celebrations. Some of those traditions included offering gifts of imitation fruit (symbols of fertility) and the lighting of yule logs, a special log that is burned through the night of the winter solstice to help bring light to the darkest night of the year and to help reignite the sun.

It's no coincidence Christmas Day coincides with the winter solstice.

In modern times, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. Many believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus was set to sync with the December solstice because from that point on, the days begin to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. However, according to historian David Gwynn, Christmas was set on Dec. 25 to offset pagan celebrations of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), a Roman holiday.

Another connection to Christmas is the term Yule, derived from the Norse word jól, which refers to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival.

Ginger has been a longstanding favorite of the winter solstice.

Making gingerbread houses and cookies around Christmas time is a tradition for many people that brings warmth and happiness to their homes. But did you know that this special herb was unknown to Europeans until it was brought back by returning crusaders in the early 1100s? It was a big hit and became a holiday favorite, used in gingerbread and teas.

Winter solstice bonfires started the tradition of feasts during the holiday season.

Heavy meals, also known as feasts, were very common at solstice bonfires. Much of the food we eat today at feasts, including pork (reminiscent of wild boar hunts common in northern Europe) and other meats. At this time of the year, farmers harvested their herds to avoid having to feed them over winter, and the wives harvested all the herbs.

Soltices are different from equinoxes.

Solstices are easily confused with equinoxes but are not the same thing. Like solstices, equinoxes happen twice a year, occurring in the spring and fall instead of the winter and summer. And while solstices occur during the time when the sun is farthest from the equatorial plane, equinoxes occur at the time when the sun spends the same amount of time at the equatorial plane, giving equal lengths to day and night.

It's one of the few times a year you can get up close to the rocks at Stonehenge.

In this lifetime, at least once, plan a unique and monumental trip to Stonehenge. During a solstice or equinox, visitors are allowed to freely walk through the ancient stone monument - thanks to English Heritage, the group that oversees Stonehenge.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

What covering the 2017 NRA convention was like

Last year’s National Rifle Association convention brought 80,000 people to downtown Atlanta, and on opening day I interviewed some of the nicest people I’d ever met . Given the heated protests that preceded the April 2017 event at the Georgia World Congress Center and the “fake news media&rdquo...
16th Street Baptist Church: Site of tragedy galvanized a movement
16th Street Baptist Church: Site of tragedy galvanized a movement

The importance of the 16th Street Baptist Church in the annals of African-American history can’t be overestimated. Not only was it the first black church to organize in Birmingham, Ala., it was the target in 1963 of the racially motivated bombing that killed four young girls and galvanized the civil rights movement. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia...
Insurance plans push healthier choices at grocery store
Insurance plans push healthier choices at grocery store

MINNEAPOLIS — Sandy Brezinski savored the savings last week when her preferred brand of organic tortilla chips went on sale. Not only did her grocery store discount the item to $2.99, a program offered through her employer’s health insurance knocked another $2 off the price. “You get that for 99 cents,” Brezinski said. &ldquo...
Walkability luring homebuyers to small town centers
Walkability luring homebuyers to small town centers

Anyone who has been tormented by Atlanta’s traffic may have wished for the option of ditching the car, if at least for the evening or weekend. Yet the metro area’s sprawl often means going for a gallon of milk or out to a movie means getting back behind the wheel. The dependency on vehicles that sprawl has created is a habit many homebuyers...
Flu shots less effective than normal, CDC report says

It turns out the rumors were true: This year’s flu shot is indeed less effective than usual. An unusually resilient strain of influenza called H3N2 has been the predominant assailant this season, and the vaccine rolled out last year was ill-suited to protect against it. While previous analyses from Canada and Australia on its H3N2 effectiveness...
More Stories