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The science and culture of the winter solstice

Stonehenge Winter Solstice Sunrise


Thursday, Dec. 21, 9:28 a.m., MST—the exact moment of the winter solstice in Montrose this year. Sunrise at 7:23 a.m., and sunset at 4:52 p.m., giving us just 9 hours and 29 minutes of sunlight that day, the least amount of light and longest stretch of darkness for 2017.  

The actual moment of the winter solstice varies by latitude, with the effects being more dramatic the farther north you are. Once that moment has passed, the daily amount of sunlight we receive gradually lengthens. 

Superficially, the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere seems like a moderately interesting set of numbers for astronomers and meteorologists to note. However, cultures dating back to the Neolithic Period (a/k/a The New Stone Age) have found great significance in these annual fleeting moments. 

For example, when paganism dominated the late Roman Empire, the winter solstice was marked by a festival called Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) on Dec. 25, in honor of Sol, the Roman sun god. However, Christians renamed that date Christmas, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ and the triumph of spiritual light over spiritual darkness. 

Other pagan celebrations of the winter solstice were also adapted by Christianity. Pre-Christian Scandinavian and Germanic tribes in northern Europe observed a twelve-day long midwinter (winter solstice) celebration called Yule (another name for the pagan god Odin). Your Christmas tree, Christmas wreath, and Yule log customs originated with the Yule holidays, and were gradually integrated into Christmas.  

Then, of course, there is Stonehenge, the ancient astronomically-aligned circle of large vertical and horizontal stones near Salisbury, England. According to, “Stonehenge is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset. 

“It is thought that the winter solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. The winter solstice was a time when most cattle were slaughtered (so they would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented.” 

Thousands of people still congregate for the winter solstice at Stonehenge every Dec. 21. 

Many other holidays have also been associated with the winter solstice, including: 

While these holidays have widely differing details, many share common themes of rebirth, hope, and light. 


About the author

Dave Segal

Dave Segal

Dave Segal, a Detroit native, has been a journalist since 1977. He has worked as a reporter, commentator, and news director at radio stations in Detroit, Denver, and Montrose.

Dave has been writing and editing for the Monitor since its first print issue in 2003. He is editor and senior writer for the digital magazine. On the side, Dave has also done freelance writing, media relations, and a variety of volunteer work.