There’s something enchanting about the winter solstice, which arrives this weekend and marks our longest night of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere.
Perhaps it’s the stark contrast between daylight and darkness that we experience when the winter sun is shining and not hiding behind a thick blanket of clouds. Or maybe it’s the fact that the sun hangs so low in the sky all day at this time of year that it almost feels as if our nearest star is within tangible reach, despite being 91 million miles away.
The solstice, which usually falls on Dec. 21 or 22, is technically not a full calendar day but an exact moment in time. It occurs when Earth’s Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest from the sun, bringing us our shortest daylight period and the lowest sun angle of the year. The sun appears directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, a line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of Earth’s equator that passes through South America, southern Africa and Australia.
This year’s winter solstice occurs at 11:19 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, and rather fittingly, it will be dark across most of the Northern Hemisphere at that time.
When astronomical winter officially begins, we’ll be less than halfway through our longest night of the year, which lasts more than 14 hours here in Washington. On both Saturday and Sunday, the sun will be up for just nine hours and 26 minutes, rising in the southeastern sky at 7:23 a.m. and setting to the southwest at 4:49 p.m.
I’ve always considered the winter solstice one of my favorite days of the year. Long before the dawn of modern technology, ancient cultures and civilizations have celebrated the winter solstice as a seasonal turning point, welcoming the inevitable return of the sun’s light.
Even in the modern age of technology and artificial lighting, the darkest day of the year forces us to ponder the importance of sunlight in our daily lives. It affects our moods, our productivity and even our sleep patterns. While the dark, gloomy days of winter can trigger seasonal affective disorder in many people, there’s something about the sun’s blinding, golden glow around this time of year that feels bizarrely uplifting.
The low sun angle creates long, beautiful shadows. It’s as if the sun is playing hide-and-seek, its light barely making it above tall trees and buildings. On the winter solstice in Washington, the sun climbs only 27.7 degrees above the horizon when it reaches its highest point in the sky, at 12:06 p.m. Six months from now, the sun will already be that high in the sky at 8:20 in the morning.
I often hear people grumble about the lack of daylight and how early it gets dark in the evening at this time of year. Yet there’s a particular comfort in knowing that the days will only get longer and brighter for the next six months.
I also like to remind myself that as short as the days are in the Mid-Atlantic, there are many places where the sun’s presence is even more limited. In Seattle, the sun is up for only eight hours and 26 minutes — an hour shorter than it appears in D.C. Near the Arctic Circle, the sun makes only a cameo appearance this weekend, with places such as Fairbanks, Alaska, seeing just three hours and 41 minutes of daylight.
Even before the winter solstice on Saturday, we could already observe the seasonal pendulum swinging toward brighter days.
Though our shortest day of the year is on the 21st, our earliest sunsets have already come and gone. Sunset in D.C. on the winter solstice is about three to four minutes later than it was in early December. Our daylight continues to dwindle until the solstice, but we’ve been losing more daylight in the morning rather than the evening. This happens because Earth is tilted on its axis and we orbit the sun slightly faster this time of year.
While our latest sunrises won’t happen until early January, seeing a bit more evening light is a welcome change.
The winter solstice may be our darkest and longest night of the year, but its arrival should make us appreciate the changing seasons and the sun’s slowly returning light.