Winter Solstice 2013: The Shortest Day Of The Year Is Loaded With Tradition, Customs, And Scientific Meaning

By Ajit Jha on December 20, 2013 12:04 PM EST

Aztec Calendar from Mexico
In the Aztec calendar (shown here) the winter solstice was an auspicious day. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Ever wonder why the winter solstice - the shortest day and longest night of the year - invariably falls on December 21? The answer in a word is earth's tilt.

The sun appears to perambulate from 23.5 degrees north of the equator to 23.5 degrees south of the equator during the period of June 21 to December 21 because the earth's axis remains invariably tilted. The tilt is so mysterious that scientists continue to study its implications to this day. It is this tilt that drives seasons and also explains cycles of evolution and extinction.

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While everyone on earth celebrates winter solstice as the shortest day of the year, it's actually not the day when the sun sets earliest. The earliest sunset arrives a few weeks earlier than the solstice in the northern hemisphere. Someone living in the northern hemisphere may experience the earliest sunsets between beginning and the mid-December.

Not clear on that? You're not alone. It kind of doesn't make much sense - logic and commonsense would dictate that the earliest sunset should mean the shortest day of the year.

There is a good answer, though, and it has to do with the notion of "solar noon," also know as the midpoint of the day.

The sun is at its highest point in the sky at solar noon, the point from and to which clocks reckon a complete day. Additionally, the 24 hour day is really just a human convenience - the earth's spin is never exactly 24 hours. As a result, solar noon, as measured by the earth's spin, keeps changing season to season. If you time the earth's spin from one mid-day to the next around the winter solstice, it takes about half a minute longer than the usual 24 hours. This explains why we have earlier sunsets just before winter solstice and late sunrises for few weeks after the solstice.  

The precise point of arrival of this year's winter solstice in the United States is 5:11 p.m. on Dec. 21, marking the shortest day of the year. The United States is expected to get just nine and half hours of sunlight on this day. If you are curious, it's called a "solstice" because it's when the sun's southward journey will pause for a while (in Latin, sol=sun and sisto=stop).

However, winter solstice is not just about astronomy. This unique date has huge cultural implications. For thousands of years, civilizations have celebrated this day with religious and cultural traditions, of which Ireland's mysterious newgrange tomb, German Yule festivals, and the Roman feast Saturnalia are just few examples. The ancient Irish tomb continues to draw thousands of people to this day on this auspicious occasion. This Stone Age monument, 500 years older than the pyramid of Giza, is believed to have been constructed using knowledge that could have been possible only with precise astronomical observations, making it an enigma to history and science buffs alike - not to mention conspiracy theorists.

There are literally thousands of ancient sites and sacred texts that code solstices and equinoxes as spiritually and ritually significant, worthy of veneration. Greeks, Druids, Egyptians, Sumerians, Hindus, Mayans, and Incans all chose solstices and equinoxes as auspicious days.

Image above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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