Thursday, Dec. 21 marks the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This is also known as the winter solstice, or the shortest day and longest night of the year. Some count it as a whole day, but the solstice actually occurs at a specific time when the sun is exactly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest south the sun ever reaches. This year the winter solstice will occur at 11:28 a.m. EST.

Going back thousands of years, people knew that the sun’s path across the sky shifted throughout the year. Because of this, monuments such as Stonehenge and Machu Picchu are believed by some to have been built to follow the sun’s yearly progress. Today, we know the solstice is an astronomical event caused by the Earth’s 23½ degree tilt on its axis and motion in orbit around the sun.

Celebrations across the world

Many countries celebrate the winter solstice in variety of ways including parties and rituals. In Hollabrunn, Austria swarms of people dress like Krampus – the half-demon, half-goat evil counterpart to Santa Clause – and run around terrorizing and teasing the crowds watching. This tradition is believed to ward off bad spirts near the winter solstice.

In Ireland, tens of thousands of people put their name in a lottery for a chance to stand inside the Newgrange monument to witness the first rays of the day as they fill the chamber within. Only 60 people will get the chance to take part in this winter solstice ritual.

How would you like to soak in hot baths filled with fruits? In Japan, people celebrate the winter solstice by filling hot baths with yuzu citrus fruit and soaking in them in order to protect their bodies from the common cold.

How this affects you

How will you be able to tell? You’ll notice the sun will rise a little later and set a little earlier than normal, but this isn’t typically the earliest sunset you’ll see. Instead it might happen a few days before the winter solstice. To acknowledge the winter solstice, spend extra time with loved ones by:

The winter solstice provides an educational, yet fun experience full of tradition-making and projects for the whole family to enjoy. For other wintertime ideas, check out the ‘Your Neighborhood’ section on Empowering Michigan.