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You have learnt about it in school, but allow us to refresh your memory. Today, on December 21, 2021, Earth experiences winter solstice, a phenomenon wherein one of its pole tilts is farthest from the sun, causing the day to become the shortest of the year and the night to become the longest.

Interestingly, this happens twice every year, once in the northern hemisphere and once in the southern hemisphere. As you may have guessed, the opposite of this occurrence is the summer solstice when one of the poles tilts is towards the sun, causing the longest daylight and shortest night.

The tilting towards and away from the sun is the reason why countries situated around the poles — north and south — experience opposite weather conditions in different times of the year. (Like, having a summery Christmas in Australia, when most of the world celebrates in the snow.)

It is in the northern hemisphere that we experience the December solstice — usually falling on December 21 or 22. In the southern hemisphere, it will be the June solstice — usually occurring on June 20 or 21.

Historical significance

In ancient times, before people had an understanding of it, the winter solstice was celebrated as the death and rebirth of the sun. Festivals and rituals were held around this time. In many cultures, especially during the Neolithic times, such events would guide activities like the mating of animals, the keeping track of winter reserves of food, sowing of crops, etc.

Fearing for their cattle, as to how they would be fed in the harsh winter months, many people also previously slaughtered them.

In India, many festivals are held post this period, a popular one being that of Makar Sankranti. It is observed every year in the month of January, marking the first day of sun’s transit into makara (Capricorn); it marks the end of winter and beginning of longer days.

The origin of the word

Scientifically, during the winter solstice, the sun is pretty low on the horizon, and it appears to rise and set in the same place. This is why the word ‘solstice’, in Latin, is translated to ‘sun stands still’.

Winter solstice is also known as ‘hiemal solstice’, ‘hibernal solstice’, ‘brumal solstice’.

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By William Regal

Used to think I was a tad indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure.

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