Today is recorded as the shortest day of the calendar year in the United Kingdom. It is called the winter solstice, with only 7 hours and 49 minutes of daylight.
This astronomical phenomenon happens every year between the 19th and 21st of December in the run-up to Christmas day as the northern hemisphere is tilted on the axis of the earth at its furthest remove from the sun during the 365-day progression of our planet around the solar system.
With the rays of the celestial body cast on the distant Tropic of Capricorn while the North Pole lying cloaked in shadow, the residents of the northern hemisphere discover themselves doomed to some months of low temperatures and long dark nights.
The equivalent event of the southern hemisphere occurs in mid-June, at which point that people in the United Kingdom are enjoying the longest day at the height of British summertime or the summer solstice.
All this means that the United Kingdom experienced a late sunrise at 8:04 this morning and will observe an early sunset at 3:53 this afternoon.
Historically, the solstice has been utilised to mark the official start of winter or the midwinter after which point, the nights gradually start to grow shorter as we go closer to the spring equinox on the 20th of March.
In the West Country, Druids still gather at Stonehenge to mark the said occasion to this day; the pagan revellers meet at dawn in order to observe the morning sun rising over the Heel Stone of the ancient circle.
Even though the day signifies the death of the old year, the phenomenon is by no means a solemn occasion, with druids rejoicing in a moment of seasonal rebirth and celebrating the renewal of life.
In Scandinavia and Germany, a 12-day solstice or the “Yule” is observed from the middle of December, to which the rest of North America and Europe owes many of its Christmas customs, from the front door wreath and the Christmas Tree to the chocolate log. Like the Celtic druids in the United Kingdom, these traditions emphasise the natural world and its vital capacity for self-renewal.
Interestingly, the Western winter solstice is observed in Iran too, where families gather on what they call the “Yalda night” to eat pomegranates, watermelons, and nuts and read out poetry together in honour of the longest night.