1. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES TO “SUN STAND STILL.”
Solstice derives from the Latin term solstitium, containing sol, which means “sun,” and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning “to make stand.” This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice.
2. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.
The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months.
3. EARTH IS CLOSEST TO THE SUN AROUND THE WINTER SOLSTICE.
Though it doesn’t feel like it in the Northern Hemisphere, Earth is closer to the sun in early January— approximately 3 million miles closer—than it is in early July. The shortest distance between the sun and a planet is called perihelion; in 2021, Earth was at perihelion on January 2.
Despite the proximity to the sun, the reason for cold temperatures is because the Northern Hemisphere receives less sunlight and has cooler temperatures in winter due to Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt. The Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun in winter, and toward it in July.
4. THE WINTER SOLSTICE MARKS THE SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR, BUT NOT THE EARLIEST SUNSET.
Though the winter solstice is the day with the least amount of sunlight, that’s not because of the sunset. In fact, the earliest sunset happens about two weeks prior—in 2021 in New York, for example, the winter solstice is December 21, but the earliest sunsets occur on December 7 and 8 (at 4:28 pm).
The discrepancy is due to the way we calculate time. Our clocks operate on an exact 24-hour schedule, but our days are technically a little longer or shorter. One day equals the time between when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, called solar noon, and the next.
A solar day is slightly longer than 24 hours during the summer and winter solstices and slightly shorter during the spring and fall equinoxes because of Earth’s tilt and orbit. During the winter solstice in New York on December 21, solar noon is actually 11:54 am EST.