The Winter Solstice occurs on the 21st at 6:03 pm EDT, marking the beginning of the astronomical season of winter. At this time the Sun will reach its most southerly point along the ecliptic at a point above the Tropic of Capricorn some 5000 kilometers (3000 miles) south of the Hawai’ian Islands. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere this will also correspond to the shortest length of daylight we’ll experience for the year. Here in Washington we’ll have just 9 hours 26 minutes between sunrise and sunset. Of course, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, this marks the beginning of summer, and they see their shortest nights.
The December solstice has been an important yearly event that has been observed and commemorated by people since very ancient times. In particular it was widely observed by the Neolithic people of Europe, and many of the ancient monuments that dot the landscapes of the British Isles and northern France were used to observe the passing of this special day. Our modern holidays have been adapted from many of these ancient observances, many with a common theme of light to chase away the long winter darkness. For ancient people this was a welcome turning point in the year since it portended the gradual return of the warming Sun and the (eventual) end of winter.