Winter solstice sunrise in Donegal, Ireland (Credit:Sian Lindsey/ BY-SA-2.0)

With the days getting increasingly shorter and colder, it may appear as though winter has been upon us for many weeks. However, though meteorologists in the Northern Hemisphere consider December 1 as the start of the season, according to the astronomical calendar, the season will not begin until Friday, December 21. Often referred to as winter solstice, it is also the shortest day and longest night of the year. Southern Hemisphere residents, on the other hand, will celebrate summer solstice, the start of the astronomical summer, with the longest day and shortest night of 2018.

The disparate seasons are a result of the earth’s rotation around the sun and its own axis, which is tilted at a 23.5° angle. The December solstice marks the time of year when the Northern Hemisphere faces away from the sun, receiving significantly less sunlight than the Southern Hemisphere, which is tilted towards the star. The date of the solstice varies between December 20 to 23 because our Gregorian calendar has 365 days, with an extra “leap” day every four years, and does not correspond exactly with the solar year, which lasts 365.2422 days.

December solstice marks the first day of the astronomical winter in the Northern Hemisphere (Credit: Przemyslaw "Blueshade" Idzkiewicz/Wikipedia Commons/CC BY-SA-2.0)

For ancient cultures, the winter solstice was particularly significant because after it passed, the days became increasingly longer. Though many months of cold weather remained, people felt secure in the knowledge that the sun had not abandoned them. Its “rebirth” was marked with elaborate ceremonies performed at structures specially built for the occasion.

Among the most famous is Stonehenge. Located in Wiltshire, England, the pre-historic religious site, which comprises a modest circle of stones precisely aligned with the sun’s movements, is believed to have been specially constructed for winter solstice celebrations. Hundreds of people still make their way to Stonehenge every year to commemorate Yule, one of the oldest known solstice-related events.

Winter solstice at Stonehenge (Credit:

Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old burial mound located in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, is also a popular solstice destination. The massive stone structure that historians estimate took 300 men about 20 years to build, is designed to receive a ray of light into its central chamber at the dawn of winter solstice. As the dark room illuminates, it reveals a slew of incredibly intricate carvings on the walls. The event, which takes 17 minutes from start to finish, is so popular, that viewing tickets are now distributed through lottery. This year, there are 28,595 entries for the 60 spots available.

Over the years, many cities and towns have started their own winter solstice traditions. One of the most unusual celebrations takes place In Hollabrunn, Austria. Every year, hordes of people flock to the village to frolic with the Krampus – dancers dressed in fur suits and horned masks, depicting half demon and half goat creatures. “It is weird, but it’s fun,” said Natalie Kononenko, a professor in Ukrainian Ethnography Arts at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Labyrinths of Light in Vancouver (Credit: The Secret Lantern Society)

In Japan, residents, and in some cases even zoo animals, celebrate the occasion by soaking in hot baths filled with yuzu – a citrus fruit reputed to provide the body immunity from colds. Koreans mark the event by making red bean porridge, which is both consumed and spread around the house to keep evil spirits at bay. In Vancouver, Canada, the Secret Lantern Society honors winter solstice with processions, music, and artistic performances in four locations around the city, two of which feature Labyrinths of Light. Created with 700 lit candles, they are designed to provide visitors with a calming experience.

The residents of Anchorage, Alaska spend part of the 18-hour 33-minutes-long night with fun activities that include sleigh riding and hiking the Rodak Nature Trail, which is lit by beautiful ice candles made by kids.