In ancient times, the Chinese people celebrated the Winter Solstice Festival (Dong Zhi) by visiting relatives and friends, in much the same way as the Chinese Lunar New Year. There is customary feasting, and businesses will close up for the day. Glutinous floor balls known as “tang yuan” are consumed as a symbol of family unity and harmony on this day.
But what is the winter solstice, exactly?
A solstice is an astronomical term used when describing the day of the year when the sun is furthest from the equator. Two solstices exist, consisting of one solstice during the summer, which lengthens the day to the maximum, and another solstice during the winter, which shortens the day to the minimum during the year. Timing of these vary depending on which particular hemisphere you are focusing on.
A solstice is created when the earth tilts away from the sun for a particular hemisphere. While the earth is orbiting around the sun, it is also spinning on its axis. This tilting results in one hemisphere being nearer to the sun, causing the summer while the adjacent hemisphere is further away, causing the winter.
The word solstice is derived from “solstitium”, which is a Latin word. The word solstitium is derived from the Latin word “sol”, or sun, and “stitium”, which translates to stop. When the solstice occurs, the sun looks like it has done exactly that. It reaches nearly the same elevation at noon every day during the several days prior to and following the solstice.
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice falls on either December 21st or 22nd each year when the sun appears directly above the tropic of Capricorn. For the southern hemisphere, the 20th or 21st of June is the winter solstice, which takes place when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Cancer.
The winter solstice marks the day of the year that has the shortest amount of daylight and the longest amount of night. This is the midpoint of winter for many culture’s calendars. Amazingly, in over three thousand years, the date of solstice has been moved by only a single day.
Since the bright part of the day starts to lengthen, seeming to signify rebirth of the sun, winter solstice is celebrated by various cultures as a time of new birth.
This was generally seen as something good when the change happens to eliminate the darkness of evil from the world and light up the world with goodness. At this present time, some people still celebrate light festivals. Similar to the Chinese Dong Zhi festival, the Germans observe Yule and Hindus revel in Diwali, a festival of light.
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