Hooray – only 5 days to go–to the shortest day, or winter solstice.

Whereas we associate the 21st December with the shortest day, technically this year it is on Friday 22nd–at 3.27 am. We tend to think of the winter solstice as a full 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 possible although, this 24 hour period has the fewest daylight hours of the year, hence being referred to as the shortest day–and also the longest night–of the year.

The winter solstice marks the official beginning of astronomical winter, as opposed to meteorological winter, which starts on the 1st December – although I think winter started in August this year.

If we are lucky enough to have some sun (and apricity) on the day of the solstice, if you stand outside at midday 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 virtually no shadow at all.

With the winter sun setting before 4 pm, the 22nd of December will only have 7 hours and 50 minutes of daylight–9 hours less than the summer solstice in June.

The winter solstice has been a significant time of year in many cultures, marked by festivals and rituals celebrating the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun as the days begin to lengthen. The spiritual meaning of the winter solstice Is all about beginning a new chapter in your life, which is reflected in a new cycle of birth, growth and death in nature.

Prior to Yule logs being full of sugar and calories, they used to be real logs and were carried into the house with pomp and ceremony at the winter solstice, decorated with ribbons and boughs of pine, juniper, or cedar. Once lit, this would give off a sweet smelling smoke which would bless the house with prosperity and protect from evil. 

It was considered an honour to light the log but doing so with dirty hands risked serious bad luck. The Yule log ashes were sacred, and ploughed into fields to promote good harvests.

As well as the well known celebrations at Stonehenge, the winter solstice is celebrated at other sites around the world, constructed purely to mark the winter solstice. 

At Newgrange in Ireland a beam of light travels through a ‘roof-box’ and along a passageway to illuminate a chamber – only happening on the winter solstice. A similar sight can be seen at Maeshowe, Scotland.

At the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt the complex of ruins is uniquely illuminated during the winter solstice as the rising winter sun shines through two pillars at the temple’s eastern entrance, lighting up the shrine to the Sun God.

During the winter solstice at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the sun rises upward along the edge of the pyramid in a striking fashion.