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When is the winter solstice? The shortest day

by Gary Reading, Dec 2018

In 2018 the winter solstice will occur on Friday, 21 December 

The winter solstice occurs in December and in the Northern Hemisphere the date marks the 24-hour period with the fewest daylight hours of the year, which is why it is known as the shortest day and longest night. Some may bemoan the shortage of sun, but why not make the most of the hours of darkness by stargazing? This year, the Moon will be in its waning crescent phase so unless it’s cloudy, it should be a good opportunity.

What is the winter solstice?

Since the Earth is tilted on its axis, the arc the Sun moves through during the day will rise and fall across the year as the Earth’s pole points either towards or away from the Sun.

The winter solstice occurs at the minimum point for the northern hemisphere, when the Sun is lowest in the sky.

At this time, the Earth’s North Pole is pointing away from the Sun (which is why it is so much colder in the Northern hemisphere). For people living in the Southern hemisphere, the South Pole is pointing towards the Sun, making it summertime ‘down-under’.

How long is the shortest day of the year?

The actual moment of the solstice will occur around 10.23pm in the UK, but most people concentrate on the whole solstice day, which has been recognised by holidays and festivals in many cultures all over the world.

The shortest day lasts for 7 hours 49 minutes and 41 seconds in London, UK. This day is 8 hours, 49 minutes shorter than the June Solstice.

Do the days get longer after the winter solstice?

After the shortest day, the days start getting longer and the nights shorter. The number of daylight hours peaks at the spring or vernal equinox, when day and night are around the same length, each lasting around 12 hours.

Why is it called ‘solstice’?

The world ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin solstitium meaning ‘Sun stands still’ because the apparent movement of the Sun’s path north or south stops before changing direction. At the winter solstice, the apparent position of the Sun reaches its most southerly point against the background stars.

When does winter start?

Opinion is divided over whether the solstice marks the start of winter or the middle of winter, or whether winter actually starts on 1 December (as reckoned by most meteorologists). One reason for the confusion comes from the lag in changes in temperature and weather patterns that means the coldest temperatures during the day are generally felt some time after the shortest day has passed.

Today, people from the UK and beyond visit the ancient site of Stonehenge to celebrate the winter and summer solstice. One reason why this is a popular site to visit is because you can glimpse the sun’s rays through the stones which are lined up with the path of the sun. Most people arrive late on the night of solstice to catch the sunrise and while both solstices are celebrated by modern day religions and tourists alike, the ancient civilization that first built the monument most likely did so primarily for the winter solstice, perhaps to request a good growing season in the year to come. The main features of the Stonehenge site date from the centuries around 3500 BC.