The winter solstice is Monday, December 21, 2020. This is the astronomical first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day of the year. What happens at the winter solstice? Why is the solstice important? Enjoy solstice facts and folklore from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
When Is the First Day of Winter?
In 2020, the winter solstice arrives on Monday, December 21, 5:02 A.M. EST, marking the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice always occurs around December 21 or 22. (In the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs around June 20 or 21.) It is the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year.
|Year||Winter Solstice (Northern Hemisphere)||Winter Solstice (Southern Hemisphere)|
|2020||Monday, December 21, at 5:02 A.M. EST||Saturday, June 20|
|2021||Tuesday, December 21, at 10:59 A.M. EST||Sunday, June 20*|
|2022||Wednesday, December 21, at 4:48 P.M. EST||Tuesday, June 21|
|2023||Thursday, December 21, at 10:27 A.M. EST||Wednesday, June 21|
*Due to time zone differences, this solstice will technically occur on the next day in some regions.
What Happens on the Winter Solstice?
At the winter solstice, the Sun appears at its most southerly point. The Sun is directly overhead at “high-noon” on the solstice at the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn. The next day, the path will begin to advance northward.
The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still.” So, loosely translated, it means “sun stand still.” For a few days before and after the solstice, the Sun appears to stand still in the sky. The change in its noontime elevation is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still.
As summer advances to winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets will advance southward each day; the high point in the Sun’s daily path across the sky, which occurs at local noon, also moves southward each day. Observe the changing day length in your area with our Sunrise and Sunset Times Calculator.
Think of it this way. The solstice brings the return of more sunlight. It only gets brighter from here!
When we reach the summer solstice on June 20, 21, or 22, the Sun will reach its most northernly spot, directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year (the day with the most daylight hours) and marks the beginning of summer. Learn more about the summer solstice!
You may also be familiar with the term “equinox.” In the spring (March) and the fall (September), the Sun’s path bring it directly above the equator. Equinox means “equal” and the days and night are of equal length.
Common Questions About the Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year. Is it also the coldest?
The day of the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, which means that it’s the day in which we experience the least amount of daylight. Logically, it would make sense to assume that this is also the coldest day of the year, since we are exposed to less warmth-giving sunlight on this day than at any other time. But this is not true.
There are a lot of factors that affect the temperature of a location on any given day, including altitude, snow cover, and large-scale weather patterns. Snow cover, for example, partially blocks solar radiation from being absorbed by the Earth, which results in less heat being released and an overall drop in temperature. Because of these factors, it’s not possible to point to the same date year after year and call it the coldest day.
In the United States, the coldest days of the year tend to occur between mid-December and late January, so while it’s certainly possible that the coldest day of the year could also be the day of the winter solstice, that’s not usually the case!
Is the Winter Solstice really the start of winter?
There is not a black-and-white answer to this question—it depends on which definition of “winter” you follow:
- Astronomical winter begins at the winter solstice and ends at the spring equinox. Astronomical seasons are based on the position of Earth in relation to the Sun.
- Meteorological winter (in the Northern Hemisphere) starts on December 1 and ends on February 28 (or 29). Meteorological seasons are based on the annual temperature cycle and climatological patterns observed on Earth.
Because an almanac is traditionally defined as a “calendar of the heavens,” we at The Old Farmer’s Almanac follows the astronomical definition of the seasons, which states that each of the four seasons starts on a solstice or equinox.
However, that doesn’t mean that the meteorological definition is incorrect. It is important for meteorologists to be able to compare climatological statistics for a particular season from one year to the next—for agriculture, commerce, and a variety of other purposes. Thus, meteorologists break the seasons down into groupings of three months. Meteorological winter starts on December 1 and includes December, January, and February.
Did you know? For the ancient Celts, the calendar was based around the solstices and equinoxes, marking the Quarter Days, with the mid-points called Cross-Quarter Days.
Was Stonehenge Built to Celebrate the Winter Solstice?
The solstice has been celebrated since ancient times by cultures around our planet.
Thousands of people celebrate the solstices at Stonehenge in England. Due to the alignment of the stones, experts acknowledge that the design appears to correspond with the use of the solstices and possibly other solar and lunar astronomical events in some fashion.
At sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice (longest day of the year), the Sun appears to balance perfectly on one of the stones.
There are several theories as to why the structure was built, including that the area was used as a temple to worship the Sun; as a royal burial ground; and/or as a type of astronomical observatory. However, because none of these theories has been proven correct as yet, the true reason (or reasons) for Stonehenge’s existence remains a mystery.
Read more about Ancient Sites Aligned with the Solstice and Equinox.
Winter Folklore and Verse
Here at the Almanac, we love our weather folklore. Here are just a few (of the many) proverbs that we have collected in our archives:
- Deep snow in winter; tall grain in summer. —Estonian proverb
- Visits should be short, like a winter’s day.
- A fair day in winter is the mother of a storm. —English proverb
- Summer comes with a bound; winter comes yawning.
- Onion skins very thin, mild winter coming in.
What Does Winter Mean to You?
Winter inspires both joy and woe. Some people can’t wait for the cooler weather, snow, skiing and ice skating, curling up by a fire, and the holiday spirit. You’ll notice a peaceful sort of silence when you walk through the woods—a muffled kind of quiet.
Other people dislike the frigid temperatures, blizzards, and wild weather (for good reason). In colder regions, winter often means shoveling, snowblowing, dealing with bad roads, and sometimes unbearable temperatures. In warmer regions, the winter temperatures become very mild or cool, and places such as Florida fill up with people escaping the harshness of a northern winter.
What does winter mean to you? Let us know in the comments!
Winter Weather Forecast
- Check out our 2020–2021 Winter Weather Forecast.
For 12 months of weather forecasts and so much more, pick up a copy of The 2021 Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Wishing our entire Almanac community a cozy, magical, safe, and beautiful winter season!