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Celebrate the Winter Solstice

Learn about the first day of astronomical winter and how to celebrate its arrival. Great for all ages.

Have you noticed the days growing shorter? It's hard to ignore when the sun sets at 4:15 pm. For some of us this means that we miss the daylight entirely while we're at school or work. Well, I have good news! The days are about to grow longer after the shorest day of the year, a day we call the Winter Solstice. 

What is a solstice? 

There are two solstices every calendar year, but depending on which hemisphere you live in you will experience different seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere the Winter Solstice takes place in late December whereas in the Southern Hemisphere it occurs in June. This is due to the Earth’s axis being tilted 23.5° – while one of the hemispheres is tilted toward the sun and experiences summer, the other is tilted away and goes through the winter (see Figure below).  

The solstices and equinoxes from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere. Photo: NASA

What is the Winter Solstice? 

The Winter Solstice marks the first day of astronomical winter and occurs when one of the earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun. I say this is the first day of 'astronomical winter' because meteorologist (people who study the weater/temperature) consider December 1 the start of 'meterological winter.' This is due to meteorologists counting seasons in three-month segments based on temperature patterns and December through February is typically when temperatures are at their lowest. 

For a fun, illustrated explanation check out this video from PBS Kids: 

Video: PBS Kids

When is the Winter Solstice?

This year, the Winter Solstice will take place on Dec. 21 at 5:02 a.m. EST.  Along Lake Champlain, there is an 11 minute difference in the amount of daylight on the winter solstice! This is because the further you travel north towards the north pole the less daylight you'll have. In Chittenden County, Vermont we will have 8 hours and 49 minutes of daylight on the solstice. If you have time at noon on Monday, check out how big your shadow is from the sun being low in the sky! Compare it to your shadow at noon on the Summer Solstice (spoiler alert: you won't have one!). 


Now we know what the Winter Solstice is, but we still have to discover how to celebrate! 

Many people and cultures have traditions around celebrating the solstice.  If you're interested in learning more about the history of Winter Solstice and the different cultural ways to celebrate I've linked a few resources to the bottom of the article. 

Here at Audubon, we have our own Winter Solstice traditions. Every year we read a story about a family who sets off into the woods to decorate their 'solstice tree' with garlands of popcorn and sliced oranges for the animals of the forest. Then, we make a host of edible ornaments so that the animals overwintering in Vermont have something to snack on and hang them on our solstice tree in the backyard. Last year we tied apple slices and gingerbread to our tree with the Forest Playschoolers. It was such a great way to celebrate the wildlife, plants and new daylight. We also took a moment to say thanks and shared our favorite things about wintertime from bonfires to snowboarding.

Hanging Birdseed ornament
Photo: Audubon Vermont
Decorating the Solstice Tree! Photo: Audubon Vermont

How will you celebrate? Below I have linked a virtual story, ornament ideas and a history of the Winter Solstice. You decide how you will celebrate! Start some new traditions this year.

Virtual Storytime (For ages 3-6) 

The Shortest Day, written by Wendy Pfeffer and illustrated by Jeese Reisch

Ideas and recipes for ornaments or crafts:

Homemade peanutbutter pinecone bird feeders

Bird seed ornaments

Orange and apple slices (sliced and fresh or sliced and dehydrated) tied onto string or garland

Ice lanterns 

Popcorn garland

Resources to learn more about Winter Solstice:

Winter Solstice folklore and craft ideas

History of the Winter Solstice

Great diagrams of the sun’s path across the sky.

This is my favorite solstice tool. Change the angle of the Earth on its axis, move it along its orbit around the sun, and watch the sunrise and sunset change!

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