Winter solstice is today, but what is it and how is it celebrated?

Watch: What is the winter solstice?

Feeling as if it's dark by 3pm at the moment? Well all that should start to improve...right after we've got through the winter solstice.

The arrival of winter in the UK, technically on December 1, has brought with it seemingly endless dark evenings in the build up to the Christmas season, and Friday 22 December marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. But it's not all doom and gloom, as thereafter we'll start to see a little more light.

Here's what you need to know about the annual event.

What is the winter solstice?

The word solstice derives from sol, the Latin word for sun, and sistere, which means 'to come to a stop or make stand'.

The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night when the Earth’s axis rotates to the point that the north pole has its maximum tilt away from the sun.

A white wintry scene to represent winter solstice. (Getty Images)
Winter solstice 2022 falls today, 21 December. (Getty Images)

The event also marks the start of the astronomical winter season, which won't come to an end until what is known as the spring equinox, or vernal equinox, on Wednesday 20 March 2024.

Some also refer to the date as midwinter, because the days get longer after it has passed and the countdown to spring begins. Woo hoo!

When is the winter solstice?

This year, the winter solstice occurs on Friday 22 December, specifically at 3.27am in the UK.

It is almost nine hours shorter than the longest day of the year in June, which is just under 16 hours and 38 minutes long.

On the shortest day, today, with the sun rising at 08:03 and setting at 15:53pm, there are only around 7 hours and 50 minutes of daylight hours.

This will certainly might make you tempted to keep those twinkly Christmas lights on all day, or get the festive candles out.

However, the current gloom isn't set to last, as soon after the winter solstice, days will start gradually getting longer until we have an extra hour of daylight in January.

From then on and every four weeks after, we'll continue to get more sunshine brightening up our days. Sure, summer's just around the corner...

What does the winter solstice have to do with seasons?

Experts say the reason the amount of daylight varies throughout the year has to do with the tilt of planet Earth, as the poles either point towards or away from the Sun.

This tilt also creates the earth’s seasons. During winter, the North Pole points away from the sun, meaning that there is less light shining on earth’s northern hemisphere. This leads to fewer hours of daylight and colder temperatures.

Stone Henge. (Getty Images)
Stonehenge is often the focus for winter solstice celebrations. (Getty Images)

There are also two 'equinoxes' in spring and autumn, in March and September. These are the two points in the year when the equator is the closest part of Earth to the sun, which, in theory, means that the whole world gets around 12 hours of daylight.

While solstices and equinoxes (part of astronomical records), used to help determine when seasons changed, they are now officially marked by meteorologists records (hence 1 December instead of 21 December).

How do people celebrate the winter solstice?

The winter and summer solstices have been associated with rituals and celebrations for thousands of years, with ancient cultures celebrating them across the world.

In the UK, Stonehenge has become the focal site for celebrations, with thousands of pagans gathering every year (with a few exceptions due to COVID-19) at the iconic stones, which were originally carefully placed to frame the sunset on the winter solstice.

Some also see the date as an opportunity to celebrate new beginnings.

"Winter Solstice has special spiritual significance since we are invited to leave behind energies that no longer serve us," explains Bex Milford, astrologer, cosmic coach and founder of the Moon Child Sorority.

"In Pagan tradition, winter solstice is known as Yule and is an important time of celebration and festivity. This is a symbolic honouring of ‘rebirth’ and restoration since now the sun is ‘returning’ and the days get longer.

"Gatherings at places of spiritual significance such as Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor are often common, as people watch the sunrise and sunset."

Woman walking in the winter sunshine. (Getty Images)
Taking a walk to appreciate nature can be a good way to mark winter solstice. (Getty Images)

What can we do to mark the winter solstice?

According to Milford the winter solstice is an opportunity to have a ‘rebirth’ of the self.

"It can be an opportunity to notice what limiting beliefs or unsupported habits we wish to leave behind, and what aspects of ourselves we want to elevate and embrace on our journey ahead," she explains.

"It is also a period of rest and evaluation in Astrology, where we can set intentions for the upcoming three months and release ourselves of stagnant energy in readiness for upcoming change."

In Astrology, each of the compass points and seasons is connected to a different element.

"Spring is connected to east and sunrise, welcoming in the Air element and the winds of change," Milford continues.

"Summer is south, a period of rest, patience and fire energy. Autumn is west and water, a time of harvest and bounty, whereas winter is north and is connected to Earth.

"As the Earth slows down and retreats, we too can take time to consider our priorities and how we will best utilise this period of enforced rest. Just as there is a gentle pause in the world, so we are invited to look around us and notice what supports our growth, and where we wish to flourish in the future. We can use it as a chance to accumulate the wisdom and knowledge needed for this transformation," she adds.

In the northern hemisphere, as winter solstice occurs just before the New Year, Milford suggests working with the solstice by setting your winter intentions, which you will work on until the spring equinox on 20 March.

Here are some other suggestions for ways to celebrate the winter solstice.

Create winter solstice journal

It's the perfect time to put pen to paper.

"Journaling is an incredibly powerful tool to utilise as we change seasons, since it invites us to delve into aspects of our lives that we may not have considered, thus opening us up to change," explains Milford.

"Take some time over the day of the solstice to answer these questions from the heart:

⁃ What am I proud of achieving in 2023?

⁃ How has my perception of what ‘success’ means changed?

⁃ What does the word ‘ambition’ mean to me?

⁃ Where in my life would I like to bloom and flourish in 2024?

⁃ How can I use this period of rest & retreat to educate myself, expand, and give myself the best chance of success?

⁃ What ideas and thoughts about myself limit me? How have I blocked my own growth in 2023?

⁃ What limiting beliefs and stories would I like to release and leave behind in 2023?"

Picture of a man's hands journaling. (Getty Images)
Get some thoughts down on paper to help you reflect and look forward. (Getty Images)

Create a solstice release list (SRL)

If you really want to get into it, holding a physical ceremony – whether alone or with friends – is a wonderful way of ushering in fresh energies and leaving behind the lingering 'shadow vibrations' that keep us restricted.

Milford suggests gathering items that symbolise each of the four elements: candles for fire, crystals, plants and rocks for Earth, feathers or incense for air and a bowl of water, of course for water.

"Place them at the compass points mentioned above (air: east, fire: south, air: west, north: earth)," she recommends.

"Sit in the middle of this circle and face north. On a piece of paper, write down a list of limiting beliefs, old stories, unsupportive habits or energetic drains that you wish to cleanse yourself of as the season shifts, and that will leave behind in the ‘darkness’ before the sun returns.

"Now, rip up the paper into little pieces, as you do so repeating ‘I leave this energy in 2023’.

"Create a hole in the ground and bury the pieces of paper, or if you prefer, find a safe space to burn them."

Milford also says you could write the list of ‘intentions’ (these might be supportive energies and high vibrations you want to embrace going forward into a new year) and keep them somewhere you can see, like a journal, diary or next to your bed.

"You may also want to physically ‘cleanse’ your space with sage or palo santo (traditionally used to ward off bad spirits), and have a declutter by ridding your space of items you’ve been meaning to throw out or give away."

Lighting a candle and setting out your intentions for the future is another way to mark the day. (Getty Images)
Lighting a candle and setting out your intentions for the future is another way to mark the day. (Getty Images)

Set your future intentions

The winter solstice is an ideal time to prepare for the future, says holistic life coach Rochelle Knowles, founder of Mindful Eyes coaching.

It's also a period to appreciate nature and give back to what the cycle of seasons it has given us.

Knowles has a couple of suggestions of rituals, which can help you celebrate, reset and renew.

"Start with gratitude, thanking nature and all that it has given you, the sunny days, the windy days, the rainy days, the rebirth of life," she says.

"Go for a walk in nature, take notice of all that nature gives and give gratitude.

"Then, plant a seed in your garden or an indoor pot to have new energy in your environment, and set an intention for the new year.

"Before you sow the seeds, hold them in your hand and think about what you would like for 2024. Or if you don’t fancy planting a seed and having the trouble of then taking care of a plant, you can do a similar ritual with a candle as the flame symbolises the sun."

The main objective, according to Knowles, is to celebrate the birth of the sun.

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