Blog: The Solstices
Date: 6 November 2019Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved.
The solstices are notable events in the solar calendar. Here I explain what the word solstice means, and why the winter solstice has been a source of both dread and celebration for many thousands of years.
If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact Me page.
The two solstices are notable events in the solar calendar. They are known as the shortest and longest days of the year, and the winter solstice, the shortest day with the smallest number of hours of hours of daylight, has been celebrated for millennia - for good reason!
The two solstices occur around 21 June and 21 December each year. In the northern hemisphere these are the summer and winter solstices respectively, in the southern hemisphere they are the other way round.
The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol for sun and stit meaning stop or stand, which has the same Latin root as the stet that editors write when they change their mind and want some text that they have deleted to remain. The Latin solstitium became the English solstice, which literally means that the sun stops or stands still.
On the solstices the sun doesn't actually stop or stand still in space; it stands still on the horizon at sun rise and sun set. The solstices occur at the limits of the progression through the year of the position of sunrise and sunset along the eastern and western horizons.
If you watch where the sun rises on the eastern horizon, or sets on the western horizon, throughout the year, you will notice that in the winter it rises and sets further to the south than it does in the summer, and that as the seasons change the position of sunrise and sunset gradually cycles between two extremes. The figure here is a sketch of where the sun rises on the eastern horizon at each solstice. The position of sun rise and sun set appears to march along the horizon from midsummer to mid winter. When it gets to a solstice, the position of sunrise and sunset stops marching in one direction, appears to stand still for, and then starts marching in the other direction.
The summer solstice gives the day with the greatest number of daylight hours, for which reason it is called the longest day, although it remains 24 hours in total. It is sometimes called midsummer day, although it occurs at what is generally reckoned to be near to the start of summer. I find it a bit depressing, because it marks the point at which the days start to get shorter as autumn and then winter approaches. In the northern hemisphere it occurs on or around 21 June. Enjoy the summer while it's here!
With the arrival of June and wet weather, what has happened to “Flaming June”, a phrase that seems to promise scorching sunshine for the entire month. However, Flaming June is actually the name of an 1895 painting by Lord Frederic Leighton, not a statement about the weather for the month of June, which is often not flaming.
The arrival in Britain of wet weather in June after a spell of dry weather in the spring is due to a meteorological phenomenon known as the “return of the westerlies”. In the spring, clear skies, dry weather and cold nights are usually due to easterly winds, which are dry because they don't cross an ocean. Around June the wind switches back to more normal westerly winds, which bring warm damp air from the Atlantic and clouds and rain.
The winter solstice is, in my view, by far the more important, because it marks the point at which the days stop getting shorter and start to lengthen again, promising the end of winter and the arrival of spring. On a technical note, of course a day remains 24 hours long, the length of the day refers to the number of daylight hours.
From its rise furthest to the left or north on midsummer's day, the point at which it rises gradually moves to the right on the horizon, towards the south, as the year moves on towards winter. The further south that it rises, the lower it is at its zenith in the sky at mid day, and the shorter and colder the days are. The same thing happens at sunset; as winter draws on the sun sets gradually further south on the western horizon.
It is easy to image an early human watching this happening and becoming worried. As sunrise and sunset move along the horizon and the days get shorter and colder, without any knowledge of celestial mechanics and how the earth moves around the sun, they would worry that eventually the sun might not rise and the earth would be plunged into freezing darkness. Which of course is what does happen inside the Arctic circle . . .
But assuming that our early human is watching this from somewhere south of the Arctic circle, one day the sun would stop rising and setting further south on the horizon. It pauses, and then starts rising and setting further north. What a huge relief that would have been! The days would gradually start to lengthen and warmth would return. In time spring would come; grass and crops would start to grow again, and trees would put on leaves.
The day on which the sunrise and sunset stop marching south on the horizons and start marching north is called the day on which the sun stands still: the solstice. And knowing that the sun has stopped marching south, has turned round, and is marching north towards longer and warmer days is a great reason to celebrate! Happy solstice!
If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved. This page updated December 2019. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.