When is the winter solstice in 2023? Date set for shortest day of the year

While many things have changed in humans’ lives over the ages, one thing has remained the same: the sacred nature of the sun.

Our beliefs, celebrations, and daily habits have revolved around the warmth and light it provides, inspiring countless legends and festivals.

Meteorologically, many associate winter’s arrival with colder days and earlier sunsets. However, astronomically, the winter season starts with the winter solstice.

As this year’s winter solstice draws closer, here is a look at what it is, when it will take place this year, and what myths and legends it is associated with.

What is the winter solstice?

The winter solstice, also known as the hibernal solstice, happens when either one of our planet’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun.

This happens twice every year, once for the Northern hemisphere and once for the Southern hemisphere, kicking off their winter seasons.

The day of the winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year.

Since prehistoric times, the winter solstice has played a significant part in human cultures and, to this day, it is celebrated across the globe.

It gets its name from the Latin words “sol” and “sistere”, which mean “sun” and “to stand still”. So, solstice refers to the day the sun stands still.

When is this year’s winter solstice?

This year’s winter solstice falls on Friday, December 22, 2023. So, astronomically, the winter season won’t start until then.

In line with that, the astronomical winter season is due to come to an end on Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

What are some of the myths and legends associated with the winter solstice?

Ancient tribes and communities in the Northern Hemisphere associated the winter with their crops dying and their people enduring freezing temperatures.

Given their lack of scientific knowledge, they weren’t able to figure out why the sun appeared less. So, to make sense of it, they came up with their mythical explanations for it all.

Many communities were convinced that the sun was a feminine figure: a goddess or queen of some sort. Pre-Islamic southern Arabians called her Atthar, while Mesopotamians referred to the Queen of Heaven as Arunna. The Vikings knew her as Sol, and the Inuit called her Sun Sister.

The Nordics believed that the winter solstice marked when their goddesses would give birth, bringing more light into the darkened planet Earth. So, they referred to it as “mother’s night”.

The Finnish legend explained that the goddess of the North Louhi would kidnap the moon and the sun, and hold them captive inside a mountain, which caused the cold, dark days of winter.

Meanwhile, those in the Scottish Highlands referred to the winter solstice as “Grian-stad Geamhraidh”, meaning “sun-stop winter”. Their myths explained that a hag-goddess who brought on the winter cold would only be gone when Scots would carve her likeness into a wooden log and burn it.

How is the winter solstice celebrated today?

Given how vital the sun was to the survival of our communities, the winter solstice became one of the most important days in our calendars.

To this day, we celebrate the long and dark night that marks the turning point of the sun’s journey back to us.

In Europe, communities gather in ancient monuments that are carefully aligned with the sun’s movements, like Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. While Newgrange points to the winter solstice sunrise, Stonehenge marks the winter solstice sunset.

Communities with Persian ancestry mark the day with the festival of Yalda, which celebrates the victory of light over dark and the birthday of the sun God Mithra. On winter solstice, families come together, stay awake through the night to welcome the morning sun together, and feast.

In China, the Dongzhi festival celebrates the arrival of winter. It is thought to have started as an end-of-harvest festival in ancient times, when farmers would return from the fields to enjoy the fruits of their labours with their loved ones.

The festival is known for its special menu consisting of rice wine, dumplings, ginger rice, roasted meats and more, and for families dedicating time to worshipping their ancestors and Heaven.