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Winter solstice: What to know about the shortest day of the year


Australia is about to endure its shortest day of the year as the annual winter solstice marks the astronomical calendar’s beginning of winter.
In the southern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs when the south pole faces furthest from the sun. So, as we mark our longest night and darkest day, the northern hemisphere marks its shortest night for the summer solstice.
Despite being called the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice is technically the day with the least daylight hours.
On a brighter note, winter solstice also marks the moment when days start stretching further.

As the solstice turning point passes, the time in which the southern hemisphere faces the sun grows gradually each day until the summer solstice in December.

When is the 2024 winter solstice?

This year’s winter solstice in Australia will be on Friday 21 June.

The tilt of the earth’s axis will mean the southern hemisphere will be angled furthest away from the sun at:

  • 6:50 am AEST (Queensland, NSW, ACT, Victoria and Tasmania).
  • 6:20 am ACST (South Australia, Northern Territory, Broken Hill).
  • 4:50 am AWST (Western Australia)

How short is the shortest day of the year?

Map of Australia with labels detailing how many hours of sunlight each Australian city will have on the winter solstice.

Hobart will experience the shortest day out of any city in Australia. Source: SBS Source: SBS News / Source: www.timeanddate.com

The length of the shortest day will vary across Australia. Darwin will have the most sunlight with 11 hours, 23 minutes and 45 seconds, while Hobart will have the least, with 9 hours and 50 seconds.

Significance of the solstice

Evidence of the observation of solstices and astronomical events dates back thousands of years. In fact, the winter and summer solstice have been observed worldwide for thousands of years and were used in the earliest recorded tracking of the sun and seasonal change.
For many ancient cultures, tracking the motion and positioning of the sun was a critical skill when planning for things such as navigation and agriculture.

One well-known site used for astronomical observance was Stonehenge. The ancient stone arrangement in England has a structural design understood by historians to line up with the observation of astronomical events including the summer and winter solstice.

A man dressed as a druid stands in front of a group of people as the sun rises near Stonehenge.

A modern druid named Merlin stands as the sun rises at the prehistoric monument Stonehenge in England. Source: AAP Source: AAP

Lesser known, but even older than Stonehenge is Wurdi Youang, a stone formation west of Melbourne that is believed to be the oldest known astronomical observatory in the world.

Dating back as far as 11,000 years, Wurdi Youang predates both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The ancient Aboriginal site was built by the Wathaurong people around 45km west of Melbourne and is believed to map out the movements of the sun.
Researchers believe that the alignment of the stone formations indicates the placement of the setting sun during the summer and winter solstice.
Cultures all around the world celebrate the winter and summer solstice. Regardless of religion, many people around the world spend the longest night of the year in unique but not dissimilar ways.

For many, the winter solstice represents new beginnings and is marked by rest and feasting with loved ones.

The winter solstice around the world

Here are just a few ways people worldwide spend the longest night of the year:

Japan

In Japan, the winter solstice is known as Toji and is distinguished by traditions such as bathing in hot Yuzu-soaked water. Yuzu is a citrus fruit grown mostly in East Asia.
In ancient Japan and China, the winter solstice was feared as the day when the sun was at its weakest.

However, it was also a day marked as the beginning of the sun regaining strength as days grew progressively longer and warmer.

Two men sit in a spa filled with Yuzu fruit in a Japanese winter solstice tradition.

Men take a bath steeped with yuzu citrus fruit at a public bath in Yodogawa Ward, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. Japanese tradition says that you won’t catch a cold for one year if you take a yuzu bath on solstice day. Source: AP / Kenichi Unaki

Iran

The ancient Persian winter solstice festival of Shabe Yalda is observed in Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and anywhere Iranians live.

A man stands next to a large pile of watermelons for sale.

A vendor selling watermelons waits for customers at a market in Tehran where fruit and especially pomegranate vendors hope for good business when Iranians celebrate the Yalda feast. Source: AAP / Abedin Taherkenareh

Shabe Yalda is one of the oldest Persian festivals and marks new beginnings and the victory of light over darkness.

It is celebrated with a feast featuring symbolic foods like pomegranates and watermelon. As with many other cultural celebrations of the winter solstice, Shabe Yalda has particular significance for rural communities depending on agriculture and new harvests.

Peru and Ecuador

Peruvians and Ecuadorians also celebrate their winter solstice in June. Dating back to before the Spanish conquest, the Incas celebrated the Inti Raymi, which translates from Quechua to ‘sun festival’.

An artist in Peru dressed in traditional Inca clothing represents the sovereign of the Inca Empire in a recreation of the Inti Raymi celebration. He is pictured standing holding a traditional axe topped with feathers.

An artist representing the sovereign of the Inca Empire participates in the celebration of Inti Raymi or Fiesta del Sol (Party of Sun), in the archaeological complex of Sacsayhuaman, in Cusco, Peru. Source: AAP / EPA/Stringer

Revived in the 20th century after the Spanish earlier banned it, Inti Raymi is now marked with a reenactment of the festivities and includes ceremonies with performances, ceremonial rituals and mock sacrifices.

Mali

In Mali, the Indigenous Dogon people celebrated the winter solstice with a “goru” ceremony. The Dogon community would use a ritual vessel to hold the offerings dedicated to Amma the Creator and the ancestors.

A two-metre long long wooden vessel with eight people carved into the side, four on each side separated by a carving of a lizard. The vessel has two handles on either side, one is in the shape of a horses head.

An example of a vessel used during the goru ritual. Credit: Public Domain

The ceremony represents the coming of the important millet harvest and abundance to support the family throughout the year.



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