6 little-known facts about winter solstice

The winter solstice is sneaking up on us just as quickly as stuffed turkeys and Christmas trees. This year’s solstice will take place on Wednesday, December 21.

The astronomical phenomenon happens as the earth orbits the sun. During the winter, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun and receives sunlight at a more oblique angle, causing shorter days and a drop in temperature.

The winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year and is generally 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 the 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 coincides with the winter solstice

In modern times, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. Many believe that the celebration 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 combat 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.

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia

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. At this time of the year, farmers harvested their herds to avoid having to feed them over winter, and their wives harvested all the herbs.

Solstices 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.

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia

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

During solstices and equinoxes, visitors are allowed to freely walk through the ancient stone monument — which was likely built to align with the rays of sunlight during the events — thanks to English Heritage, the group that oversees Stonehenge.

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