WRITTEN BY: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Alternative Title: hibernal solstice
Winter solstice, also called hibernal solstice, the two moments during the year when the path of the Sun in the sky is farthest south in the Northern Hemisphere (December 21 or 22) and farthest north in the Southern Hemisphere (June 20 or 21). At the winter solstice the Sun travels the shortest path through the sky, and that day therefore has the least daylight and the longest night. (See also solstice.)
When the winter solstice happens in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Pole is tilted about 23.4° (23°27') away from the Sun. Because the Sun’s rays are shifted southward from the Equator by the same amount, the vertical noon rays are directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn (23°27' S). Six months later the South Pole is inclined about 23.4° away from the Sun. On this day of the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun’s vertical overhead rays progress to their northernmost position, the Tropic of Cancer (23°27' N).
According to the astronomical definition of the seasons, the winter solstice also marks the beginning of the season of winter, which lasts until the vernal equinox (March 20 or 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, or September 22 or 23 in the Southern Hemisphere). After the solstice, the days get longer, and the day has thus been celebrated in many cultures as a time of rebirth.
DEC 20, 2016
8 Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World
Since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations and rituals in various societies around the world.
In Peru, like the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is celebrated in June. The Inti Raymi (Quechua for “sun festival”), which takes place on the solstice, is dedicated to honoring Inti, the sun god. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas fasted for three days before the solstice. Before dawn on the fourth day, they went to a ceremonial plaza and waited for the sunrise. When it appeared, they crouched down before it, offering golden cups of chicha (a sacred beer made from fermented corn). Animals—including llamas—were sacrificed during the ceremony, and the Incas used a mirror to focus the sun’s rays and kindle a fire. After the conquest, the Spaniards banned the Inti Raymi holiday, but it was revived in the 20th century (with mock sacrifices) and continues today.
Shalako – Zuni Indians
For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year, and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call. With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year, and the yearly cycle begins again.
Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the mysterious Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. (As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites, but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins, such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, indicate they certainly took a keen interest in the sun’s movement.) In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice. An all-night ceremony then begins, including kindling fires, dancing and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition, as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.