The winter solstice – the shortest day

Sunset 29 August 2005 by Nick Lomb

Sunset on 29 August 2005 as seen from Sydney Observatory, image Nick Lomb

Melissa asks:

Something that bothers me every year is this: which day actually has the shortest day and the longest night (or v-v), eg is it sundown prior to the solstice to sunup just after the solstice which is the longest night? Eg is tonight (21st June) the longest night (southern hemisphere), whereas tomorrow is the shortest day?

And also, there is much calendar confusion re the solstice day (21 or 22). Is that because in Australia we are closer to the dateline and thus it is 22nd here at the point of solstice whereas it is still the 21st in the US (where so many of our calendars originate)? Thus you get the apparent paradox of winter solstice here being a different calendar day to summer solstice there. Have I understood this correctly?

This year winter solstice, which is the time the Sun is at its furthest north for the year, occurs at 4:06 am Australian Eastern Standard Time on Friday 22 June 2007. That means that Friday is the shortest day. Since the solstice occurs during the night of 21/22 June that is the longest night.

As most of the world apart from New Zealand is behind Australian time, in the time zones of countries like the UK and the USA the solstice occurs the day before that in Australia. Hence there is confusion for some people who have calendars with information sourced from overseas and who consequently think that the solstice and the shortest day are today. I should also point out that though from Friday onwards the days will start to get longer, the differences initially from day to day are only a few seconds and hence not noticeable.

And Sarah McDonald on ABC702 please note that the earliest sunset for the year did not occur on the solstice, but about 10 days earlier. Similarly, the latest sunrise will not be on the day of the solstice, but about 10 days later. The explanation for this involves the esoteric concept of the equation of time, but that is another story or blog post…..

55 responses to “The winter solstice – the shortest day

  • Appreciate very much , your info. What you have stated just about confirms my practically NIL INFO on this subject.. But it did help me help me in deciding an argument!! Ted Neil

  • A good explanation and good to know that as from tomorrow the worst is behind us and that we can now look forward to gradually enjoying slightly longer days.   My head hurts but only through the chill factor of winter.

  • Australia splits the seasons into three months each, so that we have
    Spring as September, October, November
    Summer as December, January, February
    Autumn as March, April, May
    and Winter as June, July, August.

    No seasons ever begin or end on the Solstices and equinoxes. The Winter Solstice is the festival for the renewal of the sun in pagan traditions, but that does not mean that it’s the beginning of the season. It recognises that the days will grow longer from that point, leading to spring.

  • Hi, I need some help. I know that the new seasons start on the solstice and the equinox respectively. But my friends think they start on the first of the month. I’ve told them that Australia is the only country to think this and it’s wrong but they refuse to believe me. Is there any way I prove to them that I am right?

  • Just to answer the question by christie and to clarify what jamie, barb and Serene responded with (from a practising ancestral Pagan): there are many different forms of Paganism but essentially, to cut a long story short, we’ll just stick with the ‘easter’ thing!

    The anglo-saxon pagans (before Christianity came along) celebrated the festival of Ôstarâ (called Ēostre in Old English). Ostara was indeed a goddess and more specifically, a protector of children. The ‘myth’ if you will, is that she would transform herself into a rabbit and descend upon the earth, leaving ‘sweet things'(e.g.chocolate!!) on the doorsteps of children (in particular) who left her carrots to eat. The day that people honored her was the spring equinox of each year, the 19th-22nd March (being that they were IN the northern hemisphere, and between those dates are when the spring equinox is in any given year.)

    Another familiar tradition was that everyone with wealth would make ‘hot cross buns’ (marked with an x to keep them separate from other wares) and on the day of the spring equinox, everyone was allowed to eat them for free, including any poor/indigent peoples travelling in the area. This was done in honour of her and the ‘wealthy’ people complied in order to keep her happy, so to speak, and thus receive her favour.

    Now, here is the example I give others to explain how this is related to the ‘Easter’ we know today-

    —imagine a lot of very strong, educated and armed ‘outsiders’ entering Australia right now and saying ‘Right! You are NOT allowed to celebrate Christmas (used as an example) any more, and if we catch you, we’ll kill you!’

    Australians everywhere, would of course, kick up a very big stink and it would lead to a MASSIVE rift/all out war or something.

    So back then, When Christians were trying to convert the people at large, they basically TOOK all the ‘forms’ of the worship that are fun, eg. lighting up the tree with candles, exchanging gifts, etc. and just said ‘We’re going to do the same stuff, but it won’t be called Yuletide’ anymore, we are going to change it to ‘Christmas’ and make everyone believe it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, not a celebration of the heart of darkness in winter and the promise of a new spring’.

    Gradually, over a LOT of time, this is Exactly what happened and ‘Eostre’ became Easter and is now the celebration of the death of Christ rather than honouring Ostara.

    As explained, the same thing happened with pretty much all the other festivals too, with tons of little minor one’s being changed to honour saints rather than deities.

    Anyway, one last thing to mention about Yuletide/Christmas in particular that also applies to other dates, is that there were A LOT of pagans and Christians fighting about the difference in Rome (specifically the date it was celebrated) and one of the Emperors slammed his fist down and said “Right! That’s it!! I say it’s the 25th of December (which was in the middle) because I’m sick of the fighting. It of course became law for both sides during that time and as we know, the Christians proved to be a much stronger and bloodthirstier force, thereby wiping out all but a feeble few of the pagans for good.

    I hope that has cleared it up a little for you, I DO celebrate specific things, but really, who gives a rat’s behind? Do what you like! Go to ‘church’ or stuff your face with chocolate or both, we live in a democracy that’s filled with all sorts of freedom 🙂
    be happy.

  • I am located in central Sydney and I need to know what shadow will be created by a building on my exact northern side on 21st.June. Could someone possibly let me know what angle the sun would be from the horizon on that [solstice] date at noon and at 3pm?

    • Hello Roger. In Sydney on 21 June, the date of the winter solstice the position of the Sun is as follows:
      12 noon – 33° above the horizon and 1° west of true north
      3 pm – 18° above the horizon and 44° west of true north

  • Hi, I need to calculate the shadow for a building which is easy if I only had the angle and direction of the sun on 21st June at 9:00, 12:00 and 15:00.

    • Hello Morrell. Here they are:


      March 21 3:32 am Equinox
      June 21 9:28 pm Solstice
      September 23 1:09 pm Equinox
      December 22 9:38 am Solstice

  • Quoting Nick: “In Australia winter starts on 1 June and similarly the other seasons start at the beginning of the corresponding month.” Can someone please tell Google that winter in Australia does not start on the 21st of June? Today (21st June as I write) their iGoogle site has a wintery Google picture, and when you put the mouse pointer over it, the popup says “first day of winter”!!!

    • Hello Jessie. About the same this year. As the solstice happens in the afternoon, Sunday night could be a tenth of a second or so longer than Saturday night, but I doubt if anyone would be able to measure the difference. Especially, if they are having a party to celebrate!

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