5 things you should know about the winter solstice

Photo: NOAA Satellite and Information Service GOES-13

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Thursday is the first official day of winter, but don’t let it get you down. It is also the shortest day of the year -- which means that spring is not that far away.

While it might be darker tonight, each day will turn just a little brighter. Here are some things you may not know about the solstice.

What is the winter solstice?

The winter solstice occurs when the Northern Hemisphere’s pole "is pointed farthest away from the sun,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. This means that the Northern Hemisphere’s pole is tilted away from the sun at the furthest point during the year.

The earth’s axis is tilted at an angle; as the planet revolves around the sun, the north pole will be closer or further to the star. When it is at its furthest as it is Thursday, daylight is at its shortest, marking the winter solstice.

When the south pole is furthest from the sun, daylight is longest and it is the summer solstice. The winter and summer solstice also marks the beginning of that season.

How are equinoxes different from the solstice?

The equinox occurs in the fall (autumnal equinox) and the spring (vernal equinox) and marks the beginning of the fall and spring seasons. It is when the “sun is exactly above the equator and day and night are of equal length,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The vernal equinox was once referred to as the first point of Aries because 2,000 years ago the constellation aligned at that point in the sky. Now, the vernal equinox aligns with Pisces.

Why does the tilt of the earth matter when the seasons change?

The solstices and equinoxes mark the beginning of each season. The tilt of the earth is vital to how that change occurs. The earth is tilted 23.5 degrees from the earth's orbital path around the sun, according to NOAA.

That does not mean that in winter the earth is further from the sun. The Northern Hemisphere experiences winter when the earth is actually closest to the sun. That is because the sun’s rays beam more directly on the Southern Hemisphere during this time. So, the Northern Hemisphere is cooler.

The same applies in the summer but in reverse; the tilt of the planet causes the sun’s rays to shine directly on the Northern Hemisphere but the earth is further from the sun in proximity.

Famous sights dedicated to the solstice

There are some famous sights around the world designed to highlight the solstice. One of the most famous is Stonehenge in England, built during the late Neolithic era. During the winter solstice, the sun will shine through the famous stone arches and land on the altar stone.

However, it is not the oldest Neolithic site dedicated to the solstice in that part of Europe. Newgrange in Ireland predates Stonehenge. Rather than archways, Newgrange is an enclosed building with a room at its center. Above the main entryway is an air duct. When it aligns with the sun on the solstice, the sun shines through the airway lighting the buildings inner chamber.

In Mexico, the famous pyramid at Chichen Itza tracks the rising sun up along the edge of the structure at dawn. In Egypt, the sun will center itself in the doorway of the Karnack Temple. The light will illuminate the columns and chambers within the temple, according to Smithsonian.

Fun fact: Did you know there is a winter solstice beer?

Dunkin’ Donuts will release a winter solstice-themed beer. The brew will only be available around the Boston area.

The Canton, Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ Donuts chain has partnered with Wormtown Brewery to launch a DDark Roast Brew, which goes on sale starting at 11:28 a.m. ET

Editor’s Note: Information for this story was provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica, NASA, Smithsonian and NOAA.

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