How to use tomorrow’s winter solstice to make everything feel a bit brighter

Written by Alex Sims

It may be the shortest, darkest day of the year, but the winter solstice has plenty of bright points too. We explore how the winter equinox has informed how we celebrate Christmas and its traditional meaning, plus exactly when it lands in 2021. 

The clocks have gone back, the nights have drawn in and now the shortest, darkest day of the year is upon us. The winter solstice – aka the day when the sun will set at 3.53 pm in London – takes place this week. But, despite its gloomy appearance, there’s plenty of brightness to be found in this seasonal equinox.

Humankind has been marking the 21 December event (sometimes known as midwinter) for millennia and it still holds a special place in many of the seasonal traditions we cherish today. If you plaster your house in glossy green foliage at Christmas, put a wreath on your door or get excited about mistletoe – you’re actually upholding ancient winter solstice traditions.

There’s also plenty of sparkle to be found in the darkness. The winter solstice brings about long nights, but that also means it sets in motion one of the earliest and brightest sunsets of the year, as well as one of the longest full moons. And it’s also the start of the astronomical winter during which the night sky is plastered with stars that will shine bright throughout the long nights.

Maybe it’s time to rethink our assumptions of the so-called ‘bleak’ midwinter after all?  

When is the winter solstice 2021?  

This year, the winter solstice takes place on Tuesday 21 December 2021. In the northern hemisphere, it marks the 24-hour period with the fewest hours of daylight in the year.

In London, the sun will rise at 8.03 am and set at 3.53 pm, meaning the capital will see just 7 hours, 49 minutes and 42 seconds of daylight.

The further north you live, the shorter the daylight hours will be. So, for those living in John O’Groats –the northernmost point of mainland Great Britain –the sun will set even earlier, at 3.18 pm. And spare a thought for the people living in Bodø, Norway, who typically see just 50 minutes of sunshine on the winter solstice.  

Why is 21 December the shortest day of the year?  

It’s all down to the way the Earth moves around the sun. As the Earth is tilted on its axis, during winter in the Northern hemisphere, the Earth’s North Pole points away from the sun.

On 21 December, the Earth is at its maximum tilt away from the sun, meaning the sun is at its lowest in the sky and we have less daylight.   

Does it coincide with a December full moon in 2021?  

December had its full moon, also known as the Cold Moon, Frost Moon or Winter Moon (take your pick), on Saturday 18 December – it was the last full moon before the winter solstice.

While the full moon and the winter solstice don’t coincide, the solstice does have an impact on how long the moon can be seen in the sky. According to the clever folks at Nasa, the Cold Moon is the longest full moon of the year. This is because the moon appears higher in the sky than the sun, meaning it’s visible for longer at this time. 

December’s ‘Cold Moon’ is the longest full moon of the year.

In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to take up stargazing, the winter solstice is one of the best times of the year to get started. For astronomers, the winter solstice marks the beginning of the astronomical winter, which runs from the winter solstice to the following year’s spring equinox (20 March 2022). The longer nights will give you more time to pick out stars (why not read our guide to stargazing?).

Not a night owl? The winter solstice also means you can also look forward to a beautiful early sunset. 

How is the winter solstice celebrated? 

For millennia, humans have performed rituals and celebrations across the world to mark the winter solstice. Some of these traditions are still going strong today and have even seeped into other holidays we celebrate now – like Christmas.

In fact, many people still make a point of celebrating the darkest day of the year. In many cultures and religions it’s seen as a time of rebirth and marks the promise of lighter, longer days to come with the days getting longer from this point.

It’s believed Stonehenge was strategically placed to frame the sunset on the winter solstice.

In the UK, you’ll probably be familiar with the sight of pagans and druids gathering at Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, where it’s believed the stones were strategically placed to frame the sunset on the winter solstice. You can even watch a live stream of the event.

Other prehistoric UK sites, like Maeshowe in Orkney, are believed to have been built specifically to frame the sun at the winter solstice. In the weeks leading up to the winter solstice, the last rays of the setting sun shine through Maeshowe’s entrance passage into a dark chamber; a phenomenon known as the ‘winter alignment’. 

How does the winter solstice affect Christmas?  

Believe it or not, many of the Christmas traditions we love and cherish today have their beginnings in ancient winter solstice celebrations.

The 12-day pagan holiday of Yule was centred around the winter solstice. It was celebrated by cutting mistletoe, bringing wreaths of winter greenery into the home and lighting a yule log to banish away the darkness. Sound familiar?

Many of these traditions were then absorbed into Christmas celebrations with the rise of Christianity. Think about that when you’re chomping down on your chocolate log!  

Images: Getty

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