Winter Solstice 2020: The First Day of Winter

Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Facts, Folklore, and More

December 18, 2020
Winter Sunrise

The winter solstice happens on 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?

The first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is marked by the winter solstice, which occurs on Monday, December 21, 2020, at 5:02 A.M. EST.

For the northern half of Earth (the Northern Hemisphere), the winter solstice occurs annually on December 21 or 22. (For the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs on June 20 or 21.) The winter solstice is the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year, making it the “shortest day” of the year. Thankfully, after we reach the winter solstice, the days begin to once again grow longer and longer until we reach the summer solstice—the first day of summer and the longest day of the year.

Think of it this way: Although the winter solstice means the start of winter, it also means the return of more sunlight. It only gets brighter from here!

Winter Solstice Dates

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.

A Great Conjunction on the Solstice

This year, we will be treated to a spectactular astronomical event in the evening of the solstice: a “Great Conjunction” between Jupiter and Saturn, in which the two massive planets will appear closer together in the sky than they’ve been in centuries. Keep an eye on the southwestern horizon about a half hour after sunset to catch a glimpse of the planets hovering together. Read more about the Great Conjunction here!

What Is the Winter Solstice?

The winter solstice marks the official beginning of astronomical winter (as opposed to meteorological winter, which starts about three weeks prior to the solstice). The winter solstice occurs once a year in each hemisphere: once in the Northern Hemisphere (in December) and once in the Southern Hemisphere (in June). It marks the start of each hemisphere’s winter season. When one hemisphere is experiencing their winter solstice, the other is simultaneously experiencing their summer solstice!

This is all thanks to Earth’s tilted axis, which makes it so that one half of Earth is pointed away from the Sun and the other half is pointed towards it at the time of the solstice.

We often think of the winter solstice as an event that spans an entire calendar day, but the solstice actually lasts only a moment. Specifically, it’s the exact moment when a hemisphere is tilted as far away from the Sun as it can be. This is shown in the diagram below.

Diagram of the seasons
The solstices and equinoxes from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere. Credit: NASA

The winter solstice holds significance across a variety of cultures, as it signals the changing of the seasons. Some ancient peoples even marked the solstice using huge stone structures, like Newgrange in Ireland. In some cultures, the solstice traditionally marked the midway point of the season rather than the start of it, which explains why holidays such as Midsummer Day are celebrated around the first day of summer.

What Happens on the Winter Solstice?

On the day of the winter solstice, we are tilted as far away from the Sun as possible, which means that the Sun’s path across the sky is as low in the sky as it can be. Think about the daily path of the Sun: It rises in the east and sets in the west, arcing across the sky overhead. During the summer, the Sun arcs high in the sky, but during the winter, it arcs lower, closer to the horizon.

How can we observe the effects of solstice ourselves? On the day of the solstice, stand outside at noon and look at your shadow. It’s the longest shadow that you’ll cast all year! Do this again on the day of the summer solstice and you’ll see almost no shadow.

The Sun’s Changing Path

Another way to think of this is that on the day of the solstice, the Sun’s path reaches its most southerly point in the sky. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this means that the Sun’s path is as low in the sky as it can get—even at “high noon.” In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the opposite: The Sun’s path will be high in the sky on the winter solstice—directly overhead at noon at the latitude called the Tropic of Capricorn, which is an imaginary line that circles the Earth, running through parts of South America, southern Africa, and Australia.

Winter forest sunset

The word solstice comes from Latin sol “sun” and sistere “to stand still.” So, loosely translated, it means “sun stand still.” Why? For a few days before and after the solstice, the Sun’s path across the sky appears to freeze. The change in its noontime elevation is so slight that the Sun’s path seems to stay the same, or stand still.

The day after the winter solstice, the Sun’s path begins to advance northward again, eventually reaching its most northerly point on the day of the summer solstice.

Then, as summer advances toward winter, the points on the horizon where the Sun rises and sets 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. It’s a never-ending cycle!

→ Observe the changing day length in your area with our Sunrise and Sunset Times Calculator.

Summer Solstice

When we reach the summer solstice on June 20, 21, or 22, the Sun will reach its most northerly spot, directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (which runs through Mexico, northern Africa, and southern Asia). 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!

Equinoxes

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 Earth’s equator. Equinox means “equal,” as day and night on the equinoxes are of roughly equal length.

See our SEASONS page for a diagram and dates of all seasons.

Snow tracks over mountain through trees

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 follow the astronomical definition of the seasons, which states that each of the four seasons starts on a solstice or equinox.

Learn more about the Reasons for the Seasons.

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.

Learn more about the Celtic calendar.

Ice crystals

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. 

Read more winter weather folklore.

Winter sunset

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

    Brrrr! What about that winter weather? Colder temperatures are due to arrive soon (if they’re not here already). At The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we’ve been forecasting the weather since the days of George Washington—over 225 years ago—so we know a thing or two about making predictions.

    → Check out our 2020-2021 Winter Weather Forecast to find out what sort of weather is in store for your area.

    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!

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    Reader Comments

    Leave a Comment

    What winter does for me

    The muffled quiet and the drifting beauty of a late night winter snow brings peace to my spirit.

    Summer solstice

    For me here in Toronto, the first day of winter means that s’ring is only 3 months away. I’m an avid gardener and Spring is my absolute favorite time of year!

    What Does Winter Mean to You

    Winter in Chicago was magical when I was a child, challenging as an adult, but always clean and lovely in forest preserves while cross-country skiing, skating or zooming downhill in a toboggan. Now in the Pacific NW, winter is grey, rainy and mild with rarer snowfalls that stop traffic cold! Since I am a "furlough baby" and born in January, Winter will always be a favored season with sweet memories of skating, hot chocolate and home baked cookies, breads and pies. I miss a bustling downtown, shopping at Marshall Fields and meeting friends"Under the clock", lunching in the Walnut Room and a photo with Santa.
    Great memories! Yes, I LOVE Winter.

    Best Time of the Year

    We here in southwestern Florida love winter. We are glad to see Summer go and take the heat, humidity, storms and bugs with it. We generally are treated to the best weather in the Country during the six months including November through April. Yes, Summers are pretty nasty here, but those 75 degree January days are worth the Summer suffering.

    Winter is the Best

    I loooove Winter. Even all those Chicago winters I trudged through. Love the low winter sun. It creates that moody glow. In Texas now, it never snows. Looking forward to retirement somewhere northerly so I can enjoy the seasons once again.

    Give me winter in SC

    I'll take winter over summer any day in South Carolina!! In summer the humidity is jungle-like and then you have to deal with hornets,wasps,snakes,etc..plus in winter it's never bitterly cold, and we're lucky to have one snow a year.....you can't lose with winter here!!!

    Winter solstice...

    Your last line; "... wishing you a cozy, magical, safe and
    beautiful winter season". I couldn't ask for more, Thank You, and I wish you and all the same. Welcome back Sun...

    Orbit Around the Sun

    What I was hoping for in this article is an answer as to what date is the Earth actually closest to the sun, and how does that effect the amount of daylight, and temperature?

    Perihelion and Aphelion

    The Editors's picture

    Great question! The point in Earth’s orbit where it is closest to the Sun is known as perihelion (“close sun”); the farthest, aphelion (“far sun”). Earth always reaches perihelion a couple weeks after the December solstice and similarly reaches aphelion after the June solstice. On January 2, 2021, we will be at perihelion and approximately 91,399,454 miles away from the Sun. Read more about it here.

    Regarding its effect on daylight and temperature: The difference between Earth’s distance from the Sun at perihelion and its distance at aphelion is only about 3 million miles, which is only a small fraction of the distance between Earth and the Sun (about 93 million miles)! This means that the small increase of solar energy that we receive when Earth is at perihelion is not significant enough to result in any noticeable change in our weather. Daylight is also not affected by perihelion/aphelion, as it is a result of the tilt of Earth’s orbit, not our distance from the Sun.

    2020 Solstice

    Bring back the light!! I'm not enjoying the winter so far and it's only the beginning. Feeling alot of claustrophobia this year. The darkness, cold, and snow don't help.

    Solstices and Equinoxes

    The Tradition of the solstices and Equinoxes being the start of the seasons is a very recent tradition. In the Ancient Pagan religions, they are the midpoints of the seasons! The Winter Solstice is the celebration of the return or rebirth of the Sun God. This marks the days getting longer or the transition from the dark of winter to the light of spring.

    Even William Shakespeare would admit the Summer Solstice is the midpoint of Summer. His play about the Summer Solstice is “The Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”, not “The Beginning of Summer Night’s Dream”.

    Winter

    I had always been a cold season person...as bonfires are, honestly, rather irksome in the hot season...however, now that i am trying my hand at various "primitive arts"...i am curating a deep respect for the warm season. Alot can get done when it is light until 9!

    i for one, love winter

    Winding down, resting just enoughto recharge for the next planting season. Dream and plan mext flowers and veggies, knit while drinking something warm in those very dark days. It's a fantastic renewal cycle

    Dreams and danger

    For me, it feels like winter when the first heavy frost kills my vegetable garden. Spring begins when I can plant outside again. But winter is never dreary or dull here; we have snow that melts after a week or two, and beautiful, sometimes deadly, ice that turns the trees into glass ornaments, sparkling in the sun. I have to be very alert on the roads. During the winter, I lay my plans for next year's garden. It's a season of dreams and some danger, when I'm looking forward to the future yet needing to be vibrantly aware of the present. Christmas, when we rejoice over the birth of the Savior and look forward to his second coming, is very well-suited to winter.

    Winter

    I escaped NY after living there for 28 years. Been in Texas and a Florida for 35 years. I love winters here. The fall stars a new beginning for me over spring. The winter means hiking and birdwatching. Nesting season for raptors then seabirds. The gators are quieter. I feel free. I loved the NY winters when I was young and took advantage of hitting the slopes to ski and toboggan. I miss that too.

    I enjoy winter

    I live in the Phoenix Arizona Metropolitan Area. The High Temperature in December and January is from the 60s to the 70s. The Phoenix Area has a lot of Snow Birds that come here including people from Canada! This means that I am able to enjoy cool weather during the Winter Months. I do not turn on any heat because I enjoy the nice cool temperatures in my Condo Unit. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder so I have to live where it is sunny and warm year around.

    Those wintry pictures up

    Those wintry pictures up above remind me of a photo I took, of a wintry sunset with trees and an old silo...and this was an old farm building to be torn down, right between a gas station and a strip mall, on a busy road. One little glimpse of the past, it was, and then the sun would be setting behind an auto parts store.....

    winter and solstice and what it means

    I'm retired now, live in snow country (upstate NY) - we have a guy to snowplow the driveway, and I don't have to go slip-sliding around to work or anywhere else, I can stock up, stay inside, and pity those who do. Hey, I put in my time!...

    I do have to say, The Old Farmers Almanac has the most BEAUTIFUL PICTURES OF NATURE anywhere on FB. I do love the beauty of winter, and these pictures certainly show it. I love a cold snowy landscape with a bright blue sky and sun shining, and birds at the feeder against the brilliant sparkly white background. <3

    What Winter means to me.

    Winter is the time for me to slow down. Hibernate. After the ciaos of the busy year, then all the Holiday hustle and bustle, it's my time to rewind. Reflect. Read books. Knit. Enjoy myself for a change. I love Winter. Each season has it's own purpose. That's why I love Maine so much...

    Winter solstice

    It's on 22 Dec in 2019. Not 21.

    Tree's in the winter!!!

    If I were a tree in the winter, I would not want to shed my leaves!!! For, they just might help to keep the chill off of me!!!!

    WINTER

    LOVE THE COOLNESS, STARK BEAUTY OF TREES ,
    FIELDS, FROSTS, ICE, SNOW , BIRDS SCRATCHING FOR NATURAL SEEDS!!!

    Happy Ner Year!

    It would very much appeal to my sense of symmetry if the first day of the New Year was the day after the winter solstice. That is the point at which everything starts over.

    Winter Solstice

    I love winter. It is such a beautiful season. The peace, the dark, the quiet, is wonderful. it is the time when the Great Mother sleeps, while life germinates in her body, to spring forth in the spring. It is a season of renewal and gestation.
    Since I am pagan, I feel a close connection to the earth, the seasons, the life cycles, and the purpose for the changes. It is a time to go within, for self exploration and retrospection. A time to review your life history and what is to come.
    I am not crazy about summer. There is a lot of beauty but it is hot, humid, buggy and pretty miserable. I spent a year in Florida one time, and was pretty sad and felt displaced. I hated the heat, the humidity, the moldy smell, the constant air conditioning, and every day, the sameness.
    I live up north now, and love it. The only drawback is cleaning the snow off my car, so if I had a garage, I would have no problem.

    Winter Solstice

    I love winter. It is such a beautiful season. The peace, the dark, the quiet, is wonderful. it is the time when the Great Mother sleeps, while life germinates in her body, to spring forth in the spring. It is a season of renewal and gestation.
    Since I am pagan, I feel a close connection to the earth, the seasons, the life cycles, and the purpose for the changes. It is a time to go within, for self exploration and retrospection. A time to review your life history and what is to come.
    I am not crazy about summer. There is a lot of beauty but it is hot, humid, buggy and pretty miserable. I spent a year in Florida one time, and was pretty sad and felt displaced. I hated the heat, the humidity, the moldy smell, the constant air conditioning, and every day, the sameness.
    I live up north now, and love it. The only drawback is cleaning the snow off my car, so if I had a garage, I would have no problem.

    What Winter means to me

    It means things are being put to rest for a while and the earth is getting ready for a renewal in the spring. It means slowing down a bit for the weather and getting some beautiful days of snuggling in and just watching the snow fly.

    .....right there with you jane,

    But I still feel lucky to be on this side of the turf. Smile and count your blessings.

    winter

    means a lot of arthritis flare ups & muscle spams(fibromyalgia).

    DST

    How can we lowly humans decide the continuum of space-time while we're just along for the ride on this cosmic rollercoaster¿‽?!

    An old saying about winter

    As the days lengthens the cold straightens

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