Celebrating the shortest day of the year: Winter Solstice

TORONTO – Those of us who worship the sun know what’s to come when we talk about the Winter Solstice. Simply put, it’s getting closer to summer.

December 21 marks the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight hours, in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice happens when the Earth reaches a point in its orbit around the sun where its axis is tilted the farthest away from the sun. After the Winter Solstice, the days begin to get longer, and the nights shorter as the Earth continues its orbit around the sun. 


On December 21, it gets dark fast which makes for perfect conditions (weather permitting) for cultural and scientific activities to take place. Interpretation of the event often takes cultural undertones as it has deep historical roots based in astronomy. Metropolitan centres like Toronto and Vancouver celebrate the event annually, with night parades and lantern-making workshops. The Kensington Market Winter Solstice parade has been running for 22 years. Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society holds its events at a number of locations throughout the city. The Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa celebrates the Winter Solstice annually with a free stargazing event during the longest night of the year. This year, over 200 people have registered for the event.

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These type of events often controlled the sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, explains Melanie Hall, program manager at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. As popular as celebrating astronomical events has become, many of us still have misconceptions about the science behind it.


“A common mistake people make is that the reason that winter is colder than the summer is that the Earth is physically farther away from the sun during these months, the opposite is in fact true,” said Hall. “The Earth actually finds itself slightly closer to the sun during the winter months, but the tilt of the Earth’s axis is what causes the seasons. With the Northern Hemisphere tilted away from the sun during winter, the light from the sun actually hits the Earth less directly than in the summer.”


Did you know? 


On this same day in the Southern Hemisphere, the Summer Solstice is celebrated as the longest day of the year for the same reason. 


  • On Winter Solstice, the path of the sun follows a small arc in the south, giving us only a small amount of light and heat during this short day (only about 520 watts at a latitude of 45 degrees north). 
  • On the Summer Solstice, the sun follows a path nearly overhead, hitting the Earth directly with a lot of heat and power on the longest day of the year (about 1280 watts at a latitude of 45 degrees north). How did you celebrate Winter Solstice? Post your photos on our Facebook wall and we’ll pick our favourites to be featured on Global News.
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