What is it?
The 23.5 degree tilt in Earth’s axis of rotation creates a rise and fall appearance of the sun over the course of a year. During the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its furthest distance from the sun, bringing less light and colder temperatures. The winter solstice occurs at a specific time, not just day. This year, at 12:11 p.m. EST on Saturday, Dec. 21, the sun shone directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest south the sun reaches. In the Southern Hemisphere, it was the longest day of the year.
After the solstice occurs, days grow longer for north of the equator, as the sun appears farther above the horizon. This movement culminates in the longest day of the year on June 21.
Is it related to Christmas?
Sort of. There’s no date in the Bible specifically pointing to Dec. 25 as the birth of Jesus Christ, so some experts believe the Christian church selected the date several centuries later, tying it to the Roman holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, or the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The winter solstice serves a turning point in many cultures, which is why it was tied to the Mayan apocalypse scare that marked the end of the calendar and to some believers, the end of the world.
Just how short is the day?
North America will only see nine hours and 32 minutes of daylight during the solstice, and 14 hours and 28 minutes of nighttime. But the winter solstice doesn’t always happen at the same time. Next year northern dwellers can brace for the solstice at 11:03 p.m. In 2015 it will occur on Dec. 22.
What are other important dates for the sun?
The summer solstice occurs on June 21, the longest day of the year in the north. On March 21 and Sept. 21, Earth’s equator passes the center of the sun, which are known as “equinoxes.” These two dates mark the point at which hours of day and night are nearly equal.