Winter solstice 2020: The shortest day is lengthy on historic traditions

(CNN) – For the past six months the days have been shorter and the nights longer in the northern hemisphere. But that is about to be reversed.

The 2020 winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the official start of winter, is Monday, December 21st. How it all works has fascinated people for thousands of years.

First, let’s look at the science and the exact timing behind the solstice. Then we will discover some old traditions and festivals around the world (although many of the celebrations in 2020 will be canceled or modified due to the pandemic). Finally, we learn about a glorious show in the sky specially planned for the 2020 winter solstice.

The science and timing behind a winter solstice

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere when the sun appears at the southernmost point directly over the distant Tropic of Capricorn.

In the southern hemisphere the situation is reversed. There, the solstice in December marks the longest day of the year – and the beginning of summer in countries like Argentina, Australia and South Africa.

These three images from NOAA’s GOES East (GOES-16) satellite show us what the earth looks like from space near the winter solstice. The images were taken about 24 hours before the 2018 winter solstice.

NOAA

When exactly does it occur?

Solstice usually, but not always, occurs on December 21st. The solstice time and the day itself shift due to the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same location as it did from Earth). does not exactly match our calendar year.

– Tokyo: Monday at 7:02 p.m.
– Bangkok: Monday at 5:02 pm
– Dubai: Monday at 2:02 p.m.
– Rome: Monday 11:02 am
– Casablanca, Morocco: Monday, 10.02 a.m. (same as UTC)
– Boston: Monday at 5:02 a.m.
– Vancouver: Monday, 2:02 am
– Honolulu: Monday at 12:02 p.m.

Which places see and feel the effects of the winter solstice most?

Daylight decreases dramatically the closer you are to the North Pole on December 21st.

The people of mild Singapore, just 137 kilometers north of the equator, hardly notice the difference, with only nine minutes less daylight than during the summer solstice.Madrid, Spain is much higher in latitude and still has a respectable nine hours and 17 minutes of daylight during the winter solstice.The House of Books (Singer House) on Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg, Russia is electrically lit.  Sunshine is in short supply here in the days leading up to the winter solstice.

The House of Books (Singer House) on Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg, Russia is electrically lit. Sunshine is in short supply here in the days leading up to the winter solstice.

Alexander Demianchuk / TASS / Getty Images

The difference is even greater in cold St. Petersburg, Russia, where the sun rises at 10 a.m. and sets at 3:53 p.m., resulting in less than six hours of anemic daylight.Nome, Alaska residents are deprived of even more sunlight with just three hours, 54 minutes, and 33 seconds of very weak daylight. But that’s downright generous compared to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It is located within the Arctic Circle and does not see a single ray of daylight.

What causes the winter solstice to even happen?

Since the earth is inclined around its axis of rotation, we experience seasons here on earth. As the earth moves around the sun, each hemisphere experiences winter when it is tilted away from the sun and summer when it is tilted towards the sun.

Waiting. Why is the earth tilted?

Scientists aren’t entirely sure how this happened, but they believe that billions of years ago when the solar system was taking shape, the earth was subjected to violent collisions that caused the axis to tilt.

What other seasonal transitions do we mark?

The equinoxes, both in spring and autumn, occur when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator. On these two days each has the same length of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are furthest north over the Tropic of Cancer, giving us our longest day and the official start of summer in the northern hemisphere.

Winter solstice traditions and festivals

Decorated evergreen trees have roots that stretch back from the beginnings of Christianity to ancient Egypt and Rome.

Decorated evergreen trees have roots that stretch back from the beginnings of Christianity to ancient Egypt and Rome.

Shutterstock

It is no surprise that many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday – be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or pagan festivals – that coincides with the return of longer days.

Ancient peoples, whose survival depended on a precise knowledge of the seasonal cycles, marked this first winter day with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal, the shedding of bad habits and negative feelings, and the embrace of hope in the midst of the darkness as the days lengthen again.

Lots of the ancient symbols and winter solstice ceremonies live on today or have been incorporated into more recent traditions. Here are just a few of them:

Alban Arthur

In the Welsh language, “Alban Arthan” means “light of winter” according to the Farmers Almanac. It could be the oldest seasonal festival known to man. As part of the Druidic traditions, the winter solstice is considered the time of death and rebirth.

Saturnalia

In ancient Rome, Saturnalia began on December 17th and lasted seven days. It honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. People enjoyed carnival-like festivals that resembled modern day Mardi Gras celebrations and even delayed their warfare. Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD.

When the Roman Empire came under Christian influence and eventual rule, some customs of the festival merged with celebrations around Christmas and New Year.

Dongzhi

It is not just the old Europeans who marked the annual occasion. The Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival has its roots in ancient Chinese culture. The name roughly means “extreme winter”.

They thought this was the top of yin (from Chinese medicine theory). Yin stands for darkness, cold and silence and thus for the longest winter day. Dongzhi marks the return yang – and the slow rise of light and warmth. In some East Asian cultures, dumplings are usually eaten for celebration.

Cancellations and modified celebrations

There are festivals celebrating the winter solstice in many places around the world. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they have either been canceled for 2020 or changed to allow for a safe, socially distant occasion.

Montol Festival

Better known for pirates than the solstice, the town of Penzance on the south west coast of England animated a delightful series of Cornish solstice events leading up to the winter solstice. They have canceled events for 2020 but hope they can resume in 2021, according to the festival’s Facebook page.A choir sings in Stonehenge on the occasion of the winter solstice.  However, personal visits will be canceled for 2020.

A choir sings in Stonehenge on the occasion of the winter solstice. However, personal visits will be canceled for 2020.

Ben Birchall / PA Images / Getty Images

Stonehenge

The UK’s most famous solstice location is Stonehenge. Traditionally at the winter solstice, visitors had the opportunity to step into the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony performed by local pagan and druid groups. Due to the pandemic, personal celebrations have been canceled this year. But the English Heritage Society set it up so you can watch the sunrise live from Stonehenge.

Lantern Festival

In Canada, the Vancouver Winter Solstice Lantern Festival is a sparkling celebration of solstice traditions from around the world. Traditionally, the Secret Lantern Society gathers a wide range of music, dance, food and spectacular lantern light processions.

For 2020 they are bringing the festival to Zoom, encouraging people to share their lanterns and other endeavors online.

The christmas star’

Saturn above and Jupiter below can be seen after sunset on December 13 in Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Virginia.

Saturn above and Jupiter below can be seen after sunset on December 13 in Shenandoah National Park in Luray, Virginia.

NASA / Bill Ingalls

While the pandemic rains on our parades on Earth, its reach cannot extend to the solar system.

Since it happens just in time for Christmas, many nickname it “Poinsettia”.

“One would have to go back to just before sunrise on March 4, 1226 to see closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky,” astronomer Patrick Hartigan, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice University in Houston, wrote in a statement.

The solstice and the “poinsettia” give a coronavirus-weary world two strong symbols of hope and memories of a universe that is advancing at its own pace that no virus can stop.

CNN’s Katia Hetter, CNN’s Ashley Strickland, and Autumn Spanne contributed to this article.

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