The days have been getting shorter for months, and now we’ve finally reached the winter solstice, which means it is the shortest day of the year.
The solstice marks the moment the sun shines at its most southern point, directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
It been celebrated by pagans for thousands of years, and many of the traditions now associated with Christmas had their roots in winter solstice celebrations – including the Christmas tree.
Sunrise over the banks of the River Frome in Dorset
The world might look pretty grim now, but remember: as soon as the solstice has passed, the days will start getting longer again and you can start looking forward to Spring.
Here’s your guide to the darkest day of the year – and a few reasons to be cheerful about it.
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What is the winter solstice?
The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the official beginning of winter.
The solstice itself is the moment the sun is shining farthest to the south, directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.
Sunrise over the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire
When is the Winter Solstice?
The date of the winter solstice is different every year, falling between December 20th and 23rd.
This year, the solstice is on Friday, December 21.
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Traditions and rituals
The winter solstice is a major pagan festival, with rituals of rebirth having been celebrated for thousands of years.
Every year revellers gather at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise on the shortest day.
Chief Druid Arthur Pendragon leads the Winter Solstice service at Stonehenge
Many of the traditions we now think of as being part of Christmas – including Yule logs, mistletoe and Christmas trees – have their roots in the pagan celebrations of winter solstice.
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Wait, the Christmas tree was originally a winter solstice tree?
Sort of. The Druids – the priests of the ancient Celts – used evergreen trees , holly and mistletoe as symbols of everlasting life during winter solstice rituals.
Cutting them down and putting them in their homes would have been too destructive to nature.
But when Saint Boniface, also known as Winfrith of Crediton, found a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree in 8th Century Germany, he cut the tree down.
Christmas trees have their roots in winter solstice celebrations
Some say he then planted a fir tree on the spot after the pagans converted – others that a fir tree sprang up on the spot.
Myth has it the converted pagans in the region returned the following year to decorate the fir tree.
Will the days start getting longer again?
Yes. After the solstice, the days will gradually get longer until the summer solstice on Friday, 21 June 2019.