Today, 22 December, is the shortest day of the year in the UK.
In the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year is often known as the winter solstice – the day with the least daylight and the longest night. It occurs every year between December 20 and December 23.
The winter solstice occurs at the same moment in time all over the world, but the date and local time differ from place to place depending on the year and a location’s time zone. Although the winter solstice itself lasts only a moment (in the UK this year it is at 04:19am on 22 December), the term is often used to refer to the day on which it occurs.
The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. This is when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. At and towards the Pole, there is continuous darkness or twilight around this time. In the UK, the shortest day of the year lasts for 7 hours 49 minutes and 41 seconds – this is 8 hours, 49 minutes shorter than the June Solstice!
Since prehistory, the winter solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures across the world. It is often viewed as marking the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun. So it has been and is still marked by a variety of festivals and rituals. The Pagan community particularly celebrates the winter solstice. For them, the day is called Yule. Many will gather at Stonehenge for the sunrise on the shortest day.
Over the years, Yule has undergone changes in society, with the result that many present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule Log stem from pagan Yule traditions.