A crash course to understanding the Winter Solstice

Dec 21, 2021, 4:26 PM | Updated: Dec 22, 2021, 5:49 am
Planes fly over the San Francisco skyline at dawn in this view from Sausalito, Calif., Tuesday, Dec...
Planes fly over the San Francisco skyline at dawn in this view from Sausalito, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010. Tuesday is the first day of winter and the winter solstice. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The winter solstice happens every Dec. 21, leaving us with the longest night we experience in a year.

Why the U.S. sees the longest night

It happens because the northern hemisphere of the earth is tilted as far away from the sun as possible. This gives us the longest night, and therefore, the shortest hours of daylight. And it also marks the first official day of winter. 

We view this date more scientifically these days, but historically this day has been a significant rite of passage in other cultures and is still an important rite of passage.

The word solstice literally translates to “the standing still of the sun.” 

The days grow shorter during winter generally, but that the daylight varies depending on where you live in the world. Utah will see the sunset around 5:03 p.m., while a place such as Alaska won’t see sunlight again until nearly the end of January. On the flip side, the South Pole won’t see the sunset until at least March. 

Where the winter solstice celebrations started

Ancient Romans celebrate this holiday to honor their god, Saturn. It gradually developed into the Christmas traditions we know today, including large feasts with families and loved ones.

Yule festivals also happen at this time of year. Yule is a 12-day holiday that started to honor the Germanic gods and goddesses; some of its traditions have been selectively morphed into the solstice and Christmas traditions. All through the 12 days, people host feasts and burn a traditional log, known as the Yule Log, to eliminate evil spirits and bring forth good luck. 

Mistletoe was said to bring good luck on this day, where a priest would climb to the highest branches of an oak tree and pluck this sacred plant. Mistletoe was widely considered to be the soul of the tree. 

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A crash course to understanding the Winter Solstice