Next Tuesday or Wednesday marks a major turning point in the annual cycle of the seasons. The sun reaches its southernmost position in the sky, resulting in the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere.
The solstice gets its name from the apparent stop (“stice”) in the motion of the sun (“sol”). This was carefully recorded by the earliest astronomers; monuments like Stonehenge are thought to have been used to mark the extreme positions of the sun in the sky. The December solstice has long marked the beginning of the new year, and it’s mainly because of slippage in our calendar that it now occurs eleven days before the “official” New Year, January 1.
Solstice day is a day of celebration in many cultures. The Romans knew this as “Saturnalia,” and the early Christians adopted this date to mark the birth of Christ, so that they could celebrate without drawing the attention of their Roman masters.
You’ll notice I said, “Tuesday or Wednesday.” That’s because, although the time of solstice is exactly the same everywhere in the world, because of our local clocks it falls on different days in different places. The exact time of solstice this year is December 22 04:48 coordinated universal time, the time used by astronomers and pilots everywhere.
In England, where the prime meridian lies, the solstice will occur a 4:48 a.m. GMT on Wednesday, December 22. Similarly, it will occur in Europe and Africa in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
In North America, we subtract a number of hours from UTC to get our local times. In most of eastern North America, we are on Eastern Standard Time, and subtract 5 hours, so the solstice falls at 11:48 p.m. on the previous day, Tuesday, December 21. The farther west we go in North America, the earlier the solstice occurs in the evening, so that on the Pacific coast it occurs at 8:48 p.m. PST.
Remember, these are all exactly the same time in the broader scheme of things; local times are just vagaries of the way we handle time around the world.
The graphic shows the sky as it would appear at the time of solstice from a location where the solstice occurs at noon, which this year would be Vietnam. Through the magic of Starry Night software, we have turned the blue sky transparent and have added the two coordinate systems we use to mark positions in the sky.
The red line across the sky marks the celestial equator, half way between the celestial north and south poles. It shows 18h on the meridian because we measure right ascension, the celestial equivalent of longitude, from the vernal equinox, exactly 9 months ago.
The green line marks the ecliptic, the path that the sun appears to follow across the sky. The sun is at its southernmost position, at a declination (celestial equivalent of latitude) of exactly 23 degrees and 26 minutes, which just happens to be the exact angle at which the Earth’s poles are tilted from the ecliptic.
The height of the sun above the horizon on solstice day depends on your latitude on the surface of the Earth. Where I live in southern Canada, it hangs very low in the southern sky, barely 22 degrees above the horizon. For anyone north of the Arctic Circle, it never rises at all. Even in the southernmost continental United States, it’s barely 42 degrees above the horizon, less than half way up the sky.
In the southern hemisphere, the situation is reversed. The December solstice marks the longest day in the year, combined with the shortest night. Longer days mean more hours of sunshine and warmer weather.
You may have noticed that I have avoided using the words “winter” and “summer.” That’s because, even though the sun’s position in the sky is responsible for our seasons, it does not match exactly with the seasons as we experience them. That’s because there is a lag of about six weeks between the astronomical season markers, solstices and equinoxes, and the actual seasons.
The Earth is a complex ecological system, and it takes a while for the sun’s movement to effect the temperature. Sometimes the astronomical markers are referred to as “the first day of…” which makes some sense, if the seasons were exactly 3 months long. However, the lengths of the seasons in any particular location tend to vary depending on local conditions. Hence the old joke about the Canadian seasons: eleven months of winter and one month of bad sledding.