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What is the Winter Solstice? - Definition & History

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  • 0:05 What is Winter Solstice?
  • 0:36 Equinoxes and Solstices
  • 1:11 Spins on an Axis
  • 3:13 History of the Winter Solstice
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
The day we call the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere has long been known as the winter solstice, and the shortest day of the year. Read more about the science behind this time of year, and the ancient and modern traditions it has inspired.

What Is Winter Solstice?

Does it always seem like the days are either getting longer or shorter? That the sun is rising later or earlier each morning? If so, you are quite observant. The amount of daylight we receive each day varies and cycles between the longest and the shortest day each year.

The winter solstice occurs at one instant on the shortest day of the year. It is the moment at which, for the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is at its lowest, or most southern, position in the sky. In many cultures, including our own western culture, this is the first day of the season we call winter.

Equinoxes and Solstices

To say that the winter solstice occurs on the shortest day of the year is accurate, but it's also a simplified definition. To understand the day and why it's the shortest in the year, we have to dig a little deeper. Every year has four special instances which our western calendar uses to designate the first day of each season.

The winter solstice is on the first day of winter and it's the shortest day of the year. The summer solstice occurs on the first day of summer and is the longest day of the year. The autumnal equinox and vernal equinox fall halfway between the solstices and are on the first days of autumn and spring.

Spins on an Axis

Right about now you are probably wondering what all this means. Why aren't all of the days equal length? Well, technically we do measure each day the same. A day is a period of 24 hours, the time it takes the earth to spin once around its axis, no matter how it is split between light and dark. What varies is the amount of daylight in each day, and this is related to the tilt of the earth.

As the earth travels around the sun it spins on its axis. The axis is an imaginary line running from the South Pole to the North Pole. Each time the earth makes one complete spin on this axis, we mark a day. This movement of the earth is called a rotation. The earth also moves around the sun. This movement is called a revolution, and one spin around the sun is a year.

The earth is not upright on its axis with respect to the plane of its revolution around the sun. It's actually tilted by about 23 degrees. This tilt gives us our varying daylight and our seasons. When the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, the Northern Hemisphere experiences more direct sunlight and warmer temperatures. This is summer. At the same time, the Southern Hemisphere is pointing away from the sun and is going through winter.

Because of this tilt in the earth, we perceive the path of the sun as moving in the sky throughout the year. On the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun appears to be at its farthest point to the south. Its greatest intensity is south of the equator, and we experience the least amount of daylight. After the winter solstice, the sun's light begins to creep up toward the equator. When it gets to the highest point north of the equator, it is the summer solstice and the longest day of the year.

The differences in amount of daylight between these two times of year are more intense the closer you get to the poles. For instance, if you are above the Arctic Circle in the winter you might not see the sun at all. Depending on exactly where you are, you might get a faint glow before the rays of the sun disappear beyond the horizon again. In the summer, on the other hand, the sun may never set fully, or may set for only an hour or two.

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