Winter solstice is coming up on Wednesday, Dec. 21. That is the day when the North Pole tilts away 23.5 degrees from the sun.
The precise moment of the winter solstice is 5:44 a.m. EST, Dec. 21. As the North Pole is tilted farthest from the Sun, obviously fewest hours of sunlight of the year will fall there. In short, during the winter solstice, Sun will be closer to the horizon than ever before in the year.
"It's really a standing point in the movement of the sun," said Anthony Aveni, a professor of astronomy at Colgate University.
Astronomically, it also marks the first day of winter.
Beginning Of More Sunlight
The arrival of the winter solstice is marked by joy as evidenced by history. Many cultures and communities have been expressing their excitement at the prolonged sunlight hours that will follow. The overjoyed people made winter solstice a hugely significant event.
As mentioned, while giving the longest night of the year, the winter solstice also marks a start towards gradually expanding days as the year progresses towards summer solstice in 2017.
In many places, winter solstice kicks off celebrations as a return of the sun ending darkness and heralds light as an auspicious time for birth and rebirth.
Sun Standing Still
The word "solstice" has a Latin origin, with 'solstitium' meaning 'Sun standing still'. On that particular day, Sun stands still at the Tropic of Capricorn and reverses the direction as it reaches a southernmost position when seen from the Earth.
Technically, it means, during the winter solstice, regions to the south of the equator will have lengths of the day becoming greater than 12 hours and those to the north of the equator will have days shorter than 12 hours.
According to Aveni, ancient people appeased gods after becoming tensed whether the sun would ever return.
That is how Greeks tried to propitiate the god Apollo and the Mayans prayed with rituals to Kinich Ahau. Ancient Romans even reserved a whole week in December to celebrate solstice by honoring the god Saturn.
Prominent European celebrations include mirth-making and feasting. In pre-Christian Scandinavia, Feast of Juul or Yule lasted for 12 days as they welcomed Sun god's rebirth by the custom of burning a Yule log.
In the contemporary world, the most famous celebrations of winter solstice take place at the ancient ruins of Stonehenge, where druids and pagans dance and sing to welcome the spectacularly rising sun.
History says ancient Rome celebrated the winter solstice with gusto by hosting the Feast of Saturnalia. Later when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, those customs were merged into the Christmas celebrations.