On Wednesday, at 4:44 a.m. Central time, the sun will reach the southernmost point as it shines down on the Earth’s surface, resulting in what we know as the winter solstice.

Days will become shorter for people living in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and anyone in the northern hemisphere, while countries in the southern hemisphere will gradually see more daylight. Sunsets will also start later with each passing day. This week we will get 4 minutes of additional sunlight. By the end of the month, the gap will increase to 10 minutes.

New York City Sunset
New York City Winter Sunset. Image credit: Anthony Quintano.

What happens in winter solstice?

The sun will set itself over the Tropic of Capricorn. The northern and southern hemispheres will finally trade places regarding sunlight distribution. It is important to realize that the Earth is not distancing itself from the sun, but it’s its axis that is rotated, and the tilt of our planet is what causes the seasonal changes of winter and summer.

Solstice means “sun stands still.” The winter solstice is considered the “extreme of winter” and has been considered a special event by several different cultures since the age of stone. The solstice was often considered a signal for sowing crops and preparing townsfolk for the upcoming winter.

One of the most interesting remains that symbolize the arrival of winter is the Stonehenge ring of standing stones. The sections that are known as the heel stone, the embanked avenue, the great trilithon, and the five central trilithons are aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and opposite to the sunrise of the summer solstice. Remains of animal bones suggest that people gathered at Stonehenge for winter, making it a place of importance for the astronomical understanding of the early Britons.

The winter months are usually associated with starvation and dead fields, making the winter solstice a vital mark for making the necessary preparations ahead of the upcoming seasons. Cattle was prepared for salting and liquors were readily fermented for drinking amid the season.

Mythology commonly associated the winter solstice with the rebirth of gods that represent the sun, which is also related to the new year as we know it. For Christians, winter solstice is closely related to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Scholars believe that the date December 25th was chosen to make pagan celebrations akin to the winter solstice less relevant. Christmas lines up Yule, an ancient European tradition that comprehends a winter solstice festival from pre-Christian times. Yule is also a Wiccan festivity when believers celebrated the rebirth of the sun and the eventual coming of days with prolonged sunlight.

Scandinavian tradition had people perform rituals in honor of Thor. The custom suggests that people keep a log in their home as a token of good luck and as kindling. In England and Germany, the log was eventually burned until it was wholly consumed. The ashes would ten be collected and spread on the fields as fertilizer. The French believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the person’s home from lighting.

Source: Time and Date