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!

    2021_engagement_calendar_winter_ad.png

    Reader Comments

    Leave a Comment

    Winter

    I am not a big fan of Winter. I love the heat and the warm sun. It takes me ten minutes just to get ready to go out and another ten to warm up the car, scrape the windows and the whole routine. Summer a short and flip flops and I am out the door. Also feel so sick to my stomach when I see homeless people sleeping outside in this season.

    homeless folk in winter

    my wife and I feel the same grief for people in the cold
    we go to the thrift store and church sales in warm weather and by coats and snow pants
    then we give them in the winter as the Lord leads us..

    winter pet peeve !!

    when one is out at the stores and you see "parents" walking into the store
    in cold weather 50 to 35 F and their little 1 year old is in a thin tee and diaper,
    while they are wear sweaters as they walk in !! ...... thoughtless !

    Thank you for thinking of the

    Thank you for thinking of the less fortunate. People like you will get it back down the road. Have a great winter.

    What winter means to me

    Winter can be very pretty after a fresh snowfall, that is if you are on the inside looking out.
    However, winter can be very mean if you are on the outside and it's freezing cold. Winter days
    are often grey and gloomy. My body seems to run on solar batteries and in the winter my solar batteries just do not seem to stay charged for very long - does that make me a sun worshipper?

    What winter means to me.

    I call it a guilt free season, I don't have to mow the lawn, or feel guilty about being inside when the sun is out. The other nice thing is if I get cold I can always put on more clothes, but if I get hot in the summer there are only so many I can take off to cool down. L.O.L.

    What winter means to me.

    Great no orange cone season for a while

    Winter

    Hate it. Period !

    What Winter Means to Me.

    Winter means it's time to prune the roses so they can re-emerge in the spring in all their glory. It means dragging my Texas-born hubby to my home state for a New England Christmas. I love the cold weather and the snow. It's a time to bundle up and walk in the snow covered woods, where everything is so quiet. It's when hats, scarves and mittens are placed on the radiator to dry after making snow angels. Ice skating, snowmen, snowballs and licking icicles. I wish it would snow in south Texas!!

    Winter is Necessary

    Winter makes you appreciate summer all the more! Winter makes you tough, keeps you humble and forces you get some rest!

    Winter-snow

    i still like the snow, when everything is covered you will have that brief period of beauty, quiet, as i enjoy the movies on TMC and AMC.

    Winter is necessary

    Yes Meg..even humans sort of hibernate...

    What Winter Means to Me

    I am not sure what winter means to me I have only experienced winter once in the last 16 years. Living in S. Florida and now Southern New Mexico I do not see much winter unless it is on TV.
    Maybe this year in Southern New Mexico we may see snow and cold temperatures.

    What winter means to me!

    I love to watch it snow, but I hate to be out in it, because of the cold, I have Reynaud's Disease, so I get too cold a lot quicker than most people at least in my fingers, toes, nose, and ears. I tried living in Southern California once, but it gets way too hot there in May, winter was great, Spring not so much...we went North then. Right now I live in CO and in a canyon the weather isn't so bad, it does get cold and we usually get some snow, but not a whole lot. Sadly we just had some single digit temps over night the last couple of nights.

    Winter?

    Just getting more excited for Spring and Summer!

    Updated Seasons

    We now have 4 updated seasons in the Great Lakes Region... Hot, Cold, Dry, and Wet.
    Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter are just a memory.

    Winter? Learning to love it again

    After spending the first 31 years of my life in upstate NY during the inhospitable winters, and dealing with all of that, I've spent the past 21 years living in a relatively warm part of Japan as a teacher and most recently a farmer.

    The only problem with winter here is the lack of central heating and insulation in the buildings. It is literally as cold inside the schools as it is outside, which makes both teaching an interesting English class and learning how to effectively layer clothing vitally important.

    I don't miss the cold of an upstate winter, but I do miss the holidays. Stay safe and warm everyone!

    Winter in Japan

    gene. You say you are in Japan, but it really depends on where you are in Japan. If you are on the southernmost islands, like Okinawa winter is similar to southern California. If you are on the island of Hokkaido you have WINTER! Enen on the main island of Honshu, the weather varies from north to south. Would have been nice to know exactly where you are.

    I love winter

    Winter has a charm and an old world romantic, nostalgic vibe that other seasons just don't have. I love snow, I loved the hushed feeling, everything that is connected with the winter season. I love driving around the snowy town and seeing how much prettier everything looks in snow. I just feel younger in the winter. In summer, the stifling heat makes it hard to breathe. I don't like sweating or feeling unclean. Winter is my season! I also love Fall.

    I love winter

    I have loved winter as far back in childhood as I can remember. I must admit though, living in southern California, I never have had to deal with snow unless we drove to the mountains after a winter storm. But I absolutely love the rain and our rainy season is Wintertime. I think my father passed his love of rain to me. I remember so many early rainy mornings in the '80s...Dad & Mom would pack us 3 kids in the car and we'd drive to La Jolla cove and the Children's Pool to watch the huge swells on the ocean and watch the huge waves crashing. It was so exciting.
    And since we barely get rain over here in CA...I prefer it over sunny skies any day.

    Winter Is For Kids

    At 7 years-old, I loved winter. It could mean days off from School. It was a good time for taking the sled down steep hills. At 12 years-old, winter came to mean shovel and sweep the walkways. After the chores it was time to slide down the best hills in the neighbourhood. At 17, winter wasn't any fun at all. All I did was shovel and sweep the walk, stay inside, and pass the hours reading.

    At 64 years-old, winter can go to Hell. These days, I feel cold even at 19º C. I now have more complaints about winter, but there is one good thing. I don't have to shovel snow.

    Franky and his no more shoveling snow

    Hey Franky,
    Winter is crisp, clean, and wonderful. How about shoveling yourself with the one you want to grow old with , (? or find a loved one ) and snuggle under a quilt, all warm and comfy; to create some new memories for the winter. Just a smiling thought.
    Peace and Blessed Be....

    Franky and his snuggles

    I like you way of thinking!! ;)

    Winter fun!

    I LOVE winter. Mostly because of the snow. There's always more high tech layers that can be added, but there's only so much you can take off in the heat of summer. Even that doesn't mean you are cool!
    Plus, I come in two colors: white and red. Never brown. Summer means more skin showing, thus more sunblock. Clothes are far easier to put on.

    Winter

    The first day of winter is the day with the least time between sunrise and sunset. After that the days slowly begin to lengthen. Those who think of winter as being so dark might want to track the times of sunrise and sunset. As for me, I enjoy winter. It is the only time I can see the branches and limbs that define the shapes of the trees. I am amazed to see bird nests that I never suspected were nearby. And the sound of falling snow is a special kind of music.

    WINTER SOLSTICE

    A day that's short & cold, is custom made to curl up & read, while sipping a hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows melting...

    Winter

    I am dreading this winter like no other. I am dreading the early darkness. I am dreading the snow. I am dreading the ice. I am dreading the cold. I'm claustrophobic already just thinking about it.

    Hello

    Winter means freezing tempatures and high ones it means being stuck in snow and bundling up.

    Winter solstice

    The winter solstice IS NOT the first day of winter? It is half way through from the autumnal equinox to the vernal equinox.

    Is Florida ever going to have

    Is Florida ever going to have any winters

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