Winter lovers, rejoice! Saturday, December 21, 2019, is the winter solstice — the astronomical start of the chilly season for residents of the Northern Hemisphere. Even more exciting, the longest night of 2019 will coincide with the peak of the Ursids meteor showers, giving fans ample time to view the spectacular shooting stars!
Caused by the Earth's tilted axis, the December solstice marks the time when the Northern Hemisphere is farthest away from the sun, resulting in less sunlight to the region. Conversely, residents of the Southern Hemisphere, which is tilted towards the sun, will celebrate the summer solstice — the astronomical start of summer — on this day. The date of the solstice varies annually 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.
Though celebrated the entire day, the solstice occurs at a particular point in time. In 2019, it will happen at precisely 4:19 a.m. Universal Time on Sunday, December 22, 2019. For North America, that translates to 11:19 p.m. EST and 8:19 p.m. PST on Saturday, December 21, 2019.
The winter solstice was particularly significant for ancient cultures because once it passed, the days became increasingly longer. Though many months of cold weather remained, people felt secure knowing that the sun had not abandoned them. They, therefore, celebrated the sun's "rebirth" on this day with elaborate ceremonies and even built special structures.
Among the most popular is Stonehenge. Located in Wiltshire, England, the prehistoric religious site, which comprises a modest circle of stones that have been perfectly aligned with the sun's movements, is believed to have been constructed just for the occasion. Hundreds of people still make their way to the ancient site every year on winter solstice to commemorate Yule, one of the oldest known solstice-related celebrations.
Newgrange in Boyne Valley, Ireland is also famous. The 5,200-year-old giant stone structure, which historians estimate took 300 men about 20 years to build, is designed to receive a shaft of light into its central chamber at the dawn of winter solstice. The light illuminates the intricate carvings inside the structure for about 17 minutes. The event is so popular that tickets are distributed via a lottery drawing every year.
Many American cities have started their own winter solstice traditions. In San Francisco, California, revelers celebrate the day with a bonfire at the city's Ocean Beach. Meanwhile, residents of Anchorage, Alaska, will spend their18 hour, 33 minute-long night with fun activities, such as going on sleigh rides in the park, hiking the ice lantern-lit paths of the Eagle River Nature Center, or gazing at the shimmering aurora borealis, or northern lights.
For those who have no planned events, an excellent way to mark the occasion is with the Ursids meteor shower. Named after the constellation Ursa Minor, from where the shooting stars appear to originate, they are the debris left behind by Comet Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 14 years. As our planet traverses through the dust stream during its orbit around the sun, the particles collide with its atmosphere at high speeds and vaporize, resulting in bright streaks that we call meteors, or "shooting stars."
The shooting stars are visible annually from around December 17 to December 26, and the 2019 meteor show is expected to peak after dark on December 21 and into the early hours of December 22, 2019. Patient stargazers will be rewarded with ten or more shooting stars streaking across the nearly moonless skies every hour! If you happen to be among them, don't forget to make a Christmas wish or two. They are bound to come true!