5 Things to Know About the Winter Solstice

The event marks the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere

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KHALED DESOUKI / AFP / Getty Images

The sun rises behind the Temple of Karnak Temple during the alignment of the winter solstice sunrise to the temple in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor on Dec. 21.

Behold! A year has passed since the great Mayan apocalypse of 2012 — newsflash: we’re all still here — and the winter solstice is again upon us. The solstice marks the shortest day of the year for dwellers in the Northern Hemisphere, and the longest day of the year for those south of the equator. But that doesn’t just mean darkness will cast a great shadow over the Northern Hemisphere. Leading up to the solstice, the sun’s highest point appears closer to horizon each day, which means the days get shorter and the nights get longer. During the solstice, the sun’s position relative to Earth seems to pause (solstice means “stationary sun”), and from that day forward appears to inch northward, meaning more sunlight for those of us in the north. Here’s a look at why you should care about today’s astronomical event.

What is it?
The 23.5 degree tilt in Earth’s axis of rotation creates a rise and fall appearance of the sun over the course of a year. During the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its furthest distance from the sun, bringing less light and colder temperatures. The winter solstice occurs at a specific time, not just day. This year, at 12:11 p.m. EST on Saturday, Dec. 21, the sun shone directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest south the sun reaches. In the Southern Hemisphere, it was the longest day of the year.

So then what happens?
After the solstice occurs, days grow longer for north of the equator, as the sun appears farther above the horizon. This movement culminates in the longest day of the year on June 21.

Is it related to Christmas? 
Sort of. There’s no date in the Bible specifically pointing to Dec. 25 as the birth of Jesus Christ, so some experts believe the Christian church selected the date several centuries later, tying it to the Roman holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, or the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The winter solstice serves a turning point in many cultures, which is why it was tied to the Mayan apocalypse scare that marked the end of the calendar and to some believers, the end of the world.

Just how short is the day? 
North America will only see nine hours and 32 minutes of daylight during the solstice, and 14 hours and 28 minutes of nighttime. But the winter solstice doesn’t always happen at the same time. Next year northern dwellers can brace for the solstice at 11:03 p.m. In 2015 it will occur on Dec. 22.

What are other important dates for the sun?
The summer solstice occurs on June 21, the longest day of the year in the north. On March 21 and Sept. 21, Earth’s equator passes the center of the sun, which are known as “equinoxes.” These two dates mark the point at which hours of day and night are nearly equal.

This post has been updated for clarity.

12 comments
Balthazar
Balthazar

Hi Courtney,

Thanks for taking the time to correct your original  article...

Not to be picky, but one more thing...Its considered 'good form' to give some credit to your commenters (either in the comments section or at the top/bottom of the article) after errors brought to your attention by those commenters have caused you to make corrections to the original article.  That way, the intent of well-meaning commenters (like myself) won't appear (to later readers of the revised article) to be idiotic or malicious once the errors we've pointed out have been edited out of the revised article. 


So. please give us some credit for the suggested changes, or  (worst case) remove my comments (this and the previous one)


Happy Solstice 
Balthazar

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Wot , no prayers to be said ? ;-)

Wolf118
Wolf118

Dear Time Editors:  You let an article with this many glaring errors through?  I'm not sure who's more at fault; you or the author. 

lucky644
lucky644

Are you people joking?  The author is referring to what we see, that being the sun will not appear lower each day, but halt its descent  and start going up, bringing longer days.


The 'halting' of the sun and 'moving northward' are not literal statements, just visual observations.

thestar
thestar

Most Armenian's don't have the correct facts... Which the author is. They think they know but don't actually...

maizein
maizein

 The author should finish by saying: "and that's how it's been for the past 6,000 years. Amen"


Balthazar
Balthazar

This article is filled with errors.  Times... where are your fact-checkers  


1. The sun will NOT halt its orbit and change paths...That is complete nonsense. Writer: please read a good childrens book on astronomy. The only change will be in the be that we reach the maximum southward point in the apparent position of the sun in the sky (relative to the horizon), caused by the earth's tilted axis and and to a lesser extent, the changing distance between earth and sun as the earth moves through its yearly elliptical path around the sun.


2. The sun WILL NOT MOVE NORTHWARD.  Only the sun's apparent position in relation to the horizon at dawn begins to shift northward each day... again caused by the earth's tilted axis and distance from the sun.  Since the Southern Hemisphere is currently experiencing summer, this change will only SLOWLY lead to a darker, colder season (six months from now) in the Southern Hemisphere.

3. It IS THE AVERAGE LENGTH of the North American Day that will be nine hours and 32 minutes of daylight during the solstice.

In the Northern states, close to Canada the day will be shorter than 9 hrs and 32 minutes...In Southern states the day will be longer.


Please rehire the fact checkers you let go during the economic crunch!


Vancouver BC

AmberLee
AmberLee

"In fact, the sun will halt its orbit and change paths" 


Except thats not a fact, the sun doesn't orbit earth, orbits don't change paths either. Courtney, this is Time Magazine WTH?


analgesic33
analgesic33

pleaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaase.

bluestraggler101
bluestraggler101

@thestar Why pick on the Armenians? Is this just more of the "Armenia The Great Santa" nonsense?