JACKSON, Wyo. —Happy Winter Solstice! Today marks the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year with just 8 hours and 46 minutes of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere.

From the date of the Christmas holiday to general misconceptions, Buckrail dives a bit deeper into the winter solstice with Samuel Singer, executive director of Wyoming Stargazers.

To start, Singer explained how the solstices and the equinoxes experienced on earth have to do with the fact that the earth is tilted about 23 and half degrees on its side as it orbits around the sun.

“This 23 and a half degree tilt has profound consequences on the earth and the ones that are most relevant to us today are the seasons,” said Singer. “A common misconception is that the changing of seasons is due to the distance from the earth to the sun that changes throughout the year, however, it actually has nothing to do with distance.”

Some may be surprised to find out that the Northern Hemisphere is actually closer to the Sun in our winter than in our summer. In fact, we reach our closest approach in about two weeks. In the summer, the sun spends more hours in the sky, so there are more hours for the sun to heat the earth, thus we get warmer in the summertime and colder in the wintertime.

To help with the confusion, Singer shared a phrase he learned from Kinesthetic Astronomy Lesson that individuals can remember to better understand the tricky topic of solstices.

“Length of days and angles of rays, but nothing to do with how far away,” said Singer. 

“Because the earth is tilted as it moves around the sun, sometimes the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and other times it’s tilted away, even though the actual position in space that the tilt is pointed towards never changes.”

Right now, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun.

Additionally, the length of days and angle of the sun’s rays is determined by the tilt of the earth and where you are on the earth relative to the sun.

Essentially, hours of daylight—the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset—have been growing slightly shorter each day since the summer solstice took place last June during which the longest day of the year took place (at least in terms of light). After Dec. 21, the days will begin to grow longer and will continue to do so until we reach the summer solstice again in June, and begin the whole cycle anew.

During the winter months, the sun stays much lower in the sky. In Jackson, this is really pronounced.

“In the wintertime, the sun just skirts around Snow King and if you’re standing at the base of Snow King it’s behind the mountain a lot of the day.

One thing that happens on the solstice is that because the sun stays lower, shadows are longer. So today, shadows are the longest they will ever be throughout the year. Just at the moment before the sunset tonight, a shadow its longest all year. Conversely, in June, at the time of the summer solstice, individuals will see the shortest shadow. This is because the Sun is at different angles. The Sun’s low arc across the sky in winter causes objects to cast longer shadows.

Singer also shared some fun facts about the winter solstice, one being the fact that Christians celebrate Christmas during this time of year is all based on the winter solstice.

“When the Catholic Church was trying to convert Pagans to Christianity thousands of years ago, they were basically taking Pagan holidays and trying to make them Christian.”

Therefore, Christmas takes place around the winter solstice because it was a Pagan time of celebration.

In Indigenous culture, the winter solstice has been a time to honor their ancient sun deity. They passed their knowledge down to successive generations through complex stories and ritual practices.

To learn more about this year’s winter solstice click here.

Buckrail @ Caroline

Caroline Chapman is a Community News Reporter. She's a lover of alliteration, easy-to-follow recipes and board games when everyone knows the rules. Her favorite aspect about living in the Tetons is the collective admiration that Wyomingites share for the land and the life that it sustains.