The shortest day, winter solstice and midwinter are the colloquial terms used to describe the 24 hours around an annual astronomical event which occurs around the 22nd December.
The shortest day marks the point when the days start to get longer and the nights shorter, and has profound cultural meaning around the world and throughout history.
The cultural significance varies, but generally refers to a time of rebirth and renewal and is celebrated with festivals and rituals.
The astronomical event of the solstice occurs when the angle of the Sun to an observer is at its greatest, for an observer in a given hemisphere.
For the Northern hemisphere this will be when the Sun is at it's southern most position, and for an observer in the Southern hemisphere the northern most.
The opposite of the winter solstice is the summer solstice and occurs around the 22nd June, and marks the point when the days are longest and nights shortest.
The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. Though the winter solstice lasts only an instant in time, the term is also colloquially used as midwinter or contrastingly the first day of winter to refer to the day on which it occurs. More evident to those in high latitudes, this occurs on the shortest day, and longest night, and the sun's daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. Depending on the shift of the calendar, the winter solstice occurs on December 21 or 22 each year in the Northern Hemisphere, and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere.
How cultures interpret the solstice is varied, since it is sometimes said to astronomically mark either the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. Winter is a subjective term, so there is no scientifically established beginning or middle of winter but the winter solstice itself is clearly calculated to within a second.
For Celtic countries, such as Ireland, the calendarical winter season has traditionally begun November 1 on Hallows eve or Samhain. Winter ends and spring begins on Imbolc or Candlemas, which is February 1 or 2. This calendar system of seasons may be based on the length of days exclusively.
Some midwinter festivals have occurred according to lunar calendars and so took place on the night of Hōku (Hawaiian, the full moon closest to the winter solstice). And many European solar calendar midwinter celebrations still centre upon the night of December 24 leading into the December 25 in the north, which was considered to be the winter solstice upon the establishment of the Julian calendar.
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© Temple of the 8 Festivals Est. 2006