Winter solstice is almost upon us! In the northern hemisphere, that is. It happens on the shortest day and longest night of the year. The solstice occurs when the sun’s daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest. Here are 5 more facts about winter solstice:

1. Winter Solstice: When Exactly does it Occur?

The exact date of winter solstice shifts every year, occurring either on December 21 or 22 in northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, it occurs on either June 21 or 22. The date can also vary because of different time zones. Although people often refer to a whole day when we talk about winter solstice, it actually only lasts a moment. This year, it will occur at December 22, 04:49 UTC. Find the exact moment of the solstice in your timezone here.

2. Ancient Mythologies and Stonehenge

It is suspected that winter solstice was already an important event for neolithic cultures. People kept close track of certain astronomical events to plan their agricultural activities. This attention for astronomy has also been linked to the formation of certain mythologies and traditions. This theory is mainly based on the analysis of ancient archaeological sites like Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of Stonehenge have been almost perfectly aligned to the winter solstice sunset, while the axes of Newgrange are carefully pointed towards the winter solstice sunrise.

3. Famine Months

Winter solstice used to be heavily linked to the idea of famine months. It was very important for people to monitor the progress of the seasons, since the weather strongly influenced their livelihood. Starvation was sometimes very common during winter months. The famine months would range from January to April in the northern hemisphere or July to October in the southern hemisphere. Cultures in temperate climates would often celebrate a midwinter festival, just before the worst of winter would begin. People would slaughter most of their livestock so they would not have to feed the animals during winter. For them, winter solstice (midwinter) would be the only time of year when they could eat lots of fresh meat. Most of the wine and beer would have finally been ready to drink around midwinter, since it would have finished fermenting as well.

4. Yule and Solstice Celebrations

Certain pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people living in northern Europe celebrated winter solstice with a twelve-day holiday called Yule. This bygone holiday is where a lot of modern Christmas traditions originally came from. These traditions include decorating Christmas trees, and hanging up Christmas wreaths. You may not have realised, but the way we celebrate Christmas today actually has a lot of connections to the winter solstice. Other non-Christmas related traditions to celebrate the December solstice recently have recently emerged, such as lantern festivals.

5. Mayan Prophecy of 2012

I’m sure most of us still remember the internet hype around a certain Mayan prophecy. The 2012 prophecy predicted the end of the world to occur during the 2012 winter solstice. Expert interpretations of the 5126-year-long Mayan Mesoamerica Long Count Calendar pointed to December 21, 2012 as the day the world would end. The Mayan Calendar seemed to have been right about big historic events before, so a lot of people believed the prophecy and even started doomsday prepping. I suppose now we all know about the accuracy of that prophecy…

Sources: [1] [2] [3]
Photos by: Andy Powell, Young Shanahan, and Tavis Ford.

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