Word of the Day

winter solstice

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


the day of the year when the sun is above the horizon for the shortest amount of time, around 21st December in the northern half of the Earth and 21st June in the southern half

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun solstice comes from the Latin ‘solstitium’, which is made up of ‘sol’ (sun) and the participial stem of the verb ‘sistere’ meaning to stand still, so the solstice is the time when the sun seems to stand still. Solstice was first used in English in the fourteenth century.


The winter solstice, which this year falls at 04:19 on 22nd December in the UK, marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. It occurs when the North Pole is pointing away from the sun, which appears at its lowest point in the sky before starting to rise again as the days lengthen. The shortest day lasts under 8 hours in London (and is even shorter further north) and is more than 8 hours shorter than the longest day, which occurs in June. The winter solstice has long been marked by celebrations in many different cultures and of course comes only a few days before Christmas. People around the world ward off the darkness and celebrate the imminent return of lighter days in different ways, but all with similar sentiments. In pre-Christian Scandinavia the day was marked by the festival of Juul celebrating the Norse god Thor. The yule log is a survival from this festival. In Iran, family and friends gather on the longest and darkest night of the year to eat, drink and read poetry, while in China and east Asia the Dongzhi Festival celebrates the return of light and energy.


“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
(John Steinbeck)

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Related words

midwinter, equinox, wintertime

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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