Winter Solstice 2016: The Science And History Of The Shortest Day Of The Year

Winter solstice 2016 is upon us. It is the shortest day of the year, or the day with the fewest hours of daylight. The winter solstice is a global scientific event that occurs every year and serves as a counterpoint to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

The winter solstice has been noticed by human beings since antiquity and has been marked by celebrations and ritual by nearly every human society. Still marked as a holy day in and of itself by practitioners of the Wiccan, Pagan, and many indigenous religions, the winter solstice also occurs at the time of the year when many other religions are celebrating various holidays, such as Hanukkah and Christmas.

The full moon in Chile during the summer solstice 2016.
The Moon During Summer Solstice 2016 In Chile [Image by Esteban Felix/AP Images]

Just What Is The Winter Solstice?

According to NASA, the both the summer and winter solstices occur when the Earth reaches a certain point in it’s rotation. The planet spins at about a 23.5-degree axis of tilt, and when this reaches the maximum extent, a solstice happens. On winter solstice 2016, the North Pole is furthest away from the Sun, and the South Pole is nearest. This spin is also the reason for the seasons. The word “solstice” comes from Latin, and means “Sun stands still.”

The solstice itself takes place in a single moment. In the case of winter solstice 2016, that moment was at 5:44 a.m. Eastern time on Wednesday. But traditionally, the entire day is celebrated, and it marks the time in the Northern Hemisphere when days will begin to grow longer with more sunlight.

The History Behind Winter Solstice 2016

In ancient times, and indeed until the relatively recent past, agricultural societies lived and died by the turning of the seasons. The long nights leading up to the solstice meant fewer opportunities to be outside, less heat inside, and no way to raise crops. The coming of the solstice, an event shared by all of humanity, was a time to celebrate and rejoice in the coming of longer days and the return of the Sun. Live Science details some of the rituals and celebrations that people have practiced to mark the shortest day of the year.

The people of Iran, for example, often celebrate by reading poetry and eating pomegranates, as their ancestors did in the days of Imperial Persia. In parts of Latin America, the “polo voladore” is often performed, a sort of ritual dance performed while tethered to the top of a 50-foot pole, as seen in the video below.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the ancient pyramid known as Cerro del Gentil in Peru seems to have been constructed with astronomical phenomena in mind, including the solstice. Researchers have found two stone lines that seem to align with the pyramid at the moment of the winter solstice. Indeed, there are many sites around the world that were built to align with the solstice, especially in Europe by pagan peoples in antiquity.

A Shaman Performs A Ritual In Hungary For Winter Solstice 2016 [Image by Peter Lehoczky/AP Images]

Stonehenge in England is perhaps the most famous example of one of these sites. Stonehenge is composed of a circle of massive stones and was built in phases over a period of 1,500 years beginning approximately between 3,000 BCE and 2,000 BCE. At sunset on the winter solstice, the rays of the Sun align with the central Altar stone, in an event that hundreds of people from around the world come to witness. Stonehenge, and other sites similar to it throughout the British Isles and Europe suggest that the winter solstice was a deeply spiritual time for pre-Christian Europe.

Winter solstice 2016 is also going to be a spiritual event for many. Many followers of various pagan, indigenous, and folk religions and spiritual paths still hold the winter solstice as a time for reflection on the past year and celebration of the new. The timing of the winter solstice, at the end of the year when numerous holidays are being celebrated (many dating back to the celebration of the solstice itself) marks it as a special day, despite being the shortest day of the year 2016.

[Featured Image by Tim Ireland/AP Images]