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(CNN) — For six months, the days have been getting shorter and the nights getting longer in the northern hemisphere. But that’s about to reverse.

Winter solstice 2022, the shortest day of the year and the first official day of winter, is Wednesday, December 21 (well, for much of the world anyway). How it all works has fascinated people for thousands of years.

We will first look at the science and the precise moment behind the solstice. Next, we’ll explore some ancient traditions and celebrations around the world.

The science and timing behind a winter solstice

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the longest night in the northern hemisphere, when the sun appears at its southernmost position, directly above the Tropic of Capricorn.

The situation is reversed in the southern hemisphere, where only about 10% of the world’s population lives. There, the December solstice marks the longest day of the year – and the start of summer – in places like Argentina, Madagascar, New Zealand and South Africa.

These three images from NOAA's GOES East (GOES-16) satellite show us what Earth looks like from space near the winter solstice.  The images were captured around 24 hours before the 2018 winter solstice. You can see how the northern hemisphere is blanketed in more darkness.

These three images from NOAA’s GOES East (GOES-16) satellite show us what Earth looks like from space near the winter solstice. The images were captured around 24 hours before the 2018 winter solstice. You can see how the northern hemisphere is blanketed in more darkness.

NOAA

When does it happen exactly?

The solstice usually – but not always – occurs on December 21. The date on which the solstice occurs may change because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same place as seen from Earth) does not correspond exactly to our calendar year.

If you want to be super precise with your observations, the exact time for the 2022 winter solstice will be 9:48 p.m. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on Wednesday, according to EarthSky.org and Farmers’ Almanac. That’s almost six hours later than last year.
The sun sets at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on the 2020 winter solstice.

The sun sets at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on the 2020 winter solstice.

Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times/Getty Images

Below are some examples of when 9:48 PM UTC will correspond to different local times in locations around the world. Due to time zone differences, the vast majority of Asia will mark the winter solstice on Thursday, December 22.


• Tokyo: 6:48 a.m. Thursday
• Hanoi, Viet Nam: 4:48 a.m. Thursday
• New Delhi: 3:18 a.m. Thursday
• Istanbul: 12:48 a.m. Thursday
• Jerusalem: 11:48 p.m. Wednesday
• Copenhagen, Denmark: 10:48 p.m. Wednesday
• Charlotte, North Carolina: 4:48 p.m. Wednesday
• Winnipeg, MB: 3:48 p.m. Wednesday
• San Francisco: 1:48 p.m. Wednesday
• Honolulu: 11:48 a.m. Wednesday

Which places see and feel the effects of the winter solstice the most?

Daylight decreases significantly as you get closer to the North Pole on December 21.

Residents of balmy Singapore, just 137 kilometers or 85 miles north of the equator, barely notice the difference, with just nine minutes less daylight than during the summer solstice. It’s about a 12 hour day, give or take, all year round there.
The illuminated Pont Alexandre III spans the Seine, adding to the magic of Paris in winter.

The illuminated Pont Alexandre III spans the Seine, adding to the magic of Paris in winter.

Frédéric Soltan/Corbis News/Getty Images

Much higher in latitude, Paris still logs in at a respectable eight hours and 14 minutes of daylight to enjoy a cool stroll along the Seine.
The difference is most stark in cold Oslo, Norway, where the sun will rise at 9:18 a.m. and set at 3:12 p.m., resulting in less than six hours of anemic daylight. Solar lamp, anyone?
Residents of Nome, Alaska will be even more sun deprived with just three hours and 54 minutes and 31 seconds of very low daylight. But that’s downright generous compared to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It is inside the Arctic Circle and will not see a single ray of sunshine.

What causes the winter solstice to occur?

Because the Earth is tilted on its axis of rotation, we have changing seasons. As the planet moves around the sun, each hemisphere experiences winter when it is tilted away from the sun and summer when it is tilted toward the sun.

Hold! Why is the Earth tilted?

Scientists aren’t sure exactly how this happened, but they believe that billions of years ago, as the solar system was taking shape, Earth was subjected to violent collisions that caused the tilt of the axis.

What other seasonal transitions do we mark?

The spring and fall equinoxes occur when the sun’s rays are directly overhead the equator. During these two days, everyone everywhere has a roughly equal duration of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are most northerly over the Tropic of Cancer, giving us our longest day and the official start of summer in the northern hemisphere.

Winter Solstice Traditions and Celebrations

A view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree for 2022. Many Christmas traditions have their roots in pagan celebrations.

A view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree for 2022. Many Christmas traditions have their roots in pagan celebrations.

John Lamparski/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday – be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or pagan holidays – that coincides with the return of longer days.

Ancient peoples whose survival depended on an accurate knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal.

“Christmas takes many of its customs and probably its date from the pagan Roman holiday calendar of Saturnalia and Kalendes,” Maria Kennedy, an assistant professor in Rutgers University’s Department of American Studies, told CNN Travel in an email. -mail.

The Saturnalia began on December 17 and Kalendes started Jan. 1, said Kennedy, who specializes in Christmas studies.

Citing academic research, Kennedy said the early founders of the Christian church condemned the practices of these holidays, but their popularity endured. The Christian observance of Christmas eventually lined up around the same time in the calendar, even though there is no specific date set in the Gospels for Jesus’ birth.

Here is more about some of these ancient customs:

Alban Arthur

In the Welsh language, “Alban Arthan” means “Winter’s Light”, according to the Farmers Almanac. It is perhaps the oldest seasonal festival of mankind. Part of Druidic traditions, the winter solstice is considered a time of death and rebirth.

Saturnalia

In ancient Rome, Saturnalia lasted seven days. It honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

People enjoyed carnival festivities resembling modern Mardi Gras celebrations and even delayed their war. Slaves were granted temporary freedoms and moral restrictions were relaxed. The Saturnalia continued into the third and fourth centuries AD.

Dongzhi

It wasn’t just the ancient Europeans who marked the annual occasion. The Dongzhi Winter Solstice Festival has its roots in ancient Chinese culture. The name roughly translates to “extreme winter”.

They thought it was the peak of yin (from Chinese medicine theory). Yin represents darkness, cold and stillness, hence the longest day in winter. Dongzhi marks the return of yang – and the slow rise of light and heat. Dumplings are commonly eaten to celebrate in some East Asian cultures.

Celebrations

Many places around the world traditionally hold festivals that honor the winter solstice. A few of them include:

Montol Festival

Known more for pirates than Solstice, the town of Penzance on England’s southwest coast has revived the delightful tradition of a Cornish procession – complete with dancing, mask-wearing, singing and more.
    A choir sings at Stonehenge to mark the winter solstice.

A choir sings at Stonehenge to mark the winter solstice.

Ben Birchall/PA Images/Getty Images

Stonehenge

The UK’s most famous site for solstice celebrations is Stonehenge. At the winter solstice, visitors traditionally enter the imposing and mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony performed by local pagan and druid groups.

lantern festival

In Canada, the Vancouver Winter Solstice Lantern Festival is a sparkling celebration of solstice traditions spread across the neighborhoods of Granville Island, Strathcona and Yaletown.

CNN’s Katia Hetter and Autumn Spanne contributed to this article.

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