The winter solstice is the solstice that occurs in winter. It is the time at which the Sun is appearing at noon at its lowest altitude above the horizon. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the Southern solstice, the time at which the Sun is at its southernmost point in the sky, which usually occurs on December 21 to 22 each year.
In the Southern Hemisphere this is the Northern solstice, the time at which the Sun is at its northernmost point in the sky, which usually occurs on June 20 to 21 each year.
The axial tilt of Earth and gyroscopic effects of the planet's daily rotation keep the axis of rotation pointed at the same point in the sky. As the Earth follows its orbit around the Sun, the same hemisphere that faced away from the Sun, experiencing winter, will, in half a year, face towards the Sun and experience summer. Since the two hemispheres face opposite directions along the planetary pole, as one polar hemisphere experiences winter, the other experiences summer.
More evident from high latitudes, a hemisphere's winter solstice occurs on the shortest day and longest night of the year, when the sun's daily maximum elevation in the sky is the lowest. Since the winter solstice lasts only a moment in time, other terms are often used for the day on which it occurs, such as 'midwinter', 'the longest night', 'the shortest day' or 'the first day of winter'. The seasonal significance of the winter solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days.
Worldwide, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most northern hemisphere cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.
History and cultural significance
The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during neolithic times. Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). Significant in respect of Stonehenge is the fact that the Great Trilithon was erected outwards from the centre of the monument, i.e., its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun.
The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not certain of living through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January and April, also known as the famine months. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve.
Since the event is seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods have been common and, in cultures using winter solstitially based cyclic calendars, the year as reborn has been celebrated with regard to life-death-rebirth deities or new beginnings such as Hogmanay's redding, a New Year cleaning tradition. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the winter and summer solstice, and Hades is permitted to enter Mount Olympus (his domain is the underworld so he of course does not get accepted any other time). Also reversal is yet another usual theme as in Saturnalia's slave and master reversals.
Direct observation of the solstice by amateurs is difficult because the sun moves too slowly at either solstice to determine its specific day, let alone its instant. Knowledge of when the event occurs has only recently been facilitated to near its instant according to precise astronomical data tracking. It is not possible to detect the actual instant of the solstice (by definition, one can not observe that an object has stopped moving until one makes a second observation in time showing that it has not moved further from the preceding spot, or that it has moved in the opposite direction). Further, to be precise to a single day one must be able to observe a change in azimuth or elevation less than or equal to about 1/60 of the angular diameter of the sun. Observing that it occurred within a two day period is easier, requiring an observation precision of only about 1/16 of the angular diameter of the sun. Thus, many observations are of the day of the solstice rather than the instant. This is often done by watching the sunrise and sunset or vice versa or using an astronomically aligned instrument that allows a ray of light to cast on a certain point around that time.
Before the scientific revolution many forms of observances, astronomical, symbolic or ritualistic, had evolved according to the beliefs of various cultures, many of which are still practiced today.