What is the solstice? The word solstice is derived from the Latin SOL meaning Sun and SISTERE meaning to stand still. In the (northern) hemisphere, as summer advances to winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets move southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, which occurs at local noon, also moves southward each day, appearing lower and lower in the sky.
At the winter solstice, the Sun’s path has reached its southernmost position. The next day, the path will begin to advance northward. However, for a few days before and after the winter solstice, the change is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still, hence the name solstice.
Many people consider the solstice to be a date on the calendar but it is actually a very precise time on the calendar; the exact moment when the sun is crosses over the Tropic of Capricorn. This year it occurs at 5:23pm EST December 21.
The solstice phenomenon is caused by the Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun. At the December solstice (winter solstice in the north, summer solstice in the south) the sun does not rise above the horizon at the North Pole and does not set below the horizon at the South Pole.
There are many cultures around the world that celebrate the solstice and some of our most cherished have “pagan” roots! In modern times, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, which falls on December 25. However, it’s believed that the 25th was chosen to coincide with pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set to be near the winter solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. Do you burn a Yule log at Christmas? Yule is a word derived from the Norse jól or Juul, referring to the pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the winter solstice.
However you honor (or not) the shortest day of the year, we can all celebrate that longer days are coming!