If you feel like you’ve had less hours in the day to get everything done, you’re not wrong - Wednesday 21 December marks the winter solstice in the UK, and with it, the shortest day of the year.
The good news is that after today, the days will once again start getting longer.
This is everything you need to know about the winter solstice, and how it’s celebrated.
What is the winter solstice?
Solstice occurs twice every year, and is referred to as the winter solstice in December, and the summer solstice in June. The winter solstice ushers in the shortest day of the year as it has the shortest period of daylight and longest period of night. On the other hand, the summer solstice enjoys the opposite with the longest day of the year, which boasts the longest period of daylight and shortest period of night.
This is because the earth rotates on something called a tilted axis - when it is tilted towards the sun, it’s summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. When it’s tilted away from the sun, it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the southern hemisphere.
During the winter solstice, the earth’s axis is tilted at its furthest point away from the sun, which results in the northern hemisphere experiencing its shortest day and longest night of the year. Once the winter solstice has passed, the days once again begin to grow longer and longer until we reach the summer solstice in which we will enjoy the longest day and shortest night of the year.
When is the winter solstice 2022?
In the UK, the winter solstice generally occurs on 21 December, which is true for 2022 but it can land on dates like 20, 22 or 23 December. Specifically, it will be at 9:48m in the Northern Hemisphere.
The date varies due to the fact that our standard Gregorian calendar that we follow, which has 365 days split into 12 months, does not match the length of the tropical year, which refers to the length of time that it takes for the earth to complete a full orbit around the sun.
The timing of the solstice becomes separated from the Gregorian calendar because it takes the earth around 256.242199 days to make its orbit around the sun.
A leap day was introduced in order to realign the calendar with the tropical year, and this happens one every four years, roughly. When it’s a leap year, the Gregorian calendar becomes 366 days long, which causes the solstice dates to revert back to an earlier date, which is 21 December most years.
Why is the winter solstice celebrated at Stonehenge?
Every year during the winter solstice, traditional celebrations draw the likes of druids, pagans and enthusiasts to Stonehenge to mark the day. It’s thought that Stonehenge was built with the winter and summer solstices in mind.
English Heritage explains: “Winter might have been a time of fear as the days grew shorter and colder. People must have longed for the return of light and warmth.
“Marking this yearly cycle may have been one of the reasons that Neolithic people constructed Stonehenge – a monument aligned to the movements of the sun.”
The stones at Stonehenge were set up in such a way as to frame the two most important events in the annual solar cycle - the midwinter sunset during the winter solstice, and the midsummer sunrise during the summer solstice.
Archaeologists also believe that the people who constructed Stonehenge also took part in great feasts during the winter solstice. It’s thought that the Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls, situated around two miles away from Stonehenge, is where the people behind Stonehenge lived, and excavations have found large amounts of pig and cattle bones.
“These animals were probably killed when they were around nine months old,” English Heritage says. “They would have been born in the spring, so it would seem that these pigs and cattle were slaughtered around the time of the winter solstice.
“Putting this together with what we know about the alignment of the stones, it’s possible that people gathered at Stonehenge at this time of year to take part in feasts, ceremonies and celebrations.”
Is the winter solstice celebrated outside the UK?
The winter solstice is regarded as a highly important event in many cultures around the world. In Iran, Yaldā Night, is the winter solstice festival which is celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year. It’s tradition for friends and family to come together to eat, drink and read poetry and Shahnameh until after midnight.
Originally, these customs aimed to protect people from evil during the long and dark night. Tradition dictates that eating watermelon will ensure health and wellbeing, pomegranates and pears will protect from scorpions and garlic will aid against joint pain.
In China and East Asia, the Dongzhi festival is an important tradition that celebrates the winter solstice. The day, which takes place on either 21, 22 or 23 December, is a time for families to get together. Traditional foods eaten during Dongzhi include tangyuan, which are balls of glutinous rice, dumplings, rice cakes and hot pot.
Midwinter Day is an annual celebration held on the day of the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, which is in mid-June. The first people to spend Midwinter Day in Antarctica were the crew of the Belgica in 1898, however there were no celebrations at the time.
The tradition of Midwinter celebrations is often attributed to Robert Falcon Scott and the crew on the Discovery expedition who, on 23 June 1902, took part in a “mid-winter festival” as a replacement for Christmas. The crew ate Christmas food, decorated their quarters with Christmas decorations and opened presents that they had brought with them and had saved for the occasion.
Traditionally, the meal is the main focal point of Midwinter Day celebrations. One longstanding tradition sees the exchange of greetings between overwintering crews. Different stations enjoy their own traditions, but one that has become common is that of watching horror films - specifically around the theme of being trapped in the snow, so films like The Shining or The Thing.