First day of winter today - but what is the December 21 solstice?

The nights have been getting darker for a long time and it may feel like the days can't get any shorter.

Well, now they won't as the winter solstice, officially the shortest day of the year - is finally here.

See also: Celebrating summer solstice 2016 at Stonehenge

See also: Summer solstice gets off to a soggy start

And Google has marked the occasion with a very chilly looking animated Doodle.


The solstice marks the moment the sun shines at its most southern point, directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.

It has 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.

Credits: Getty


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.

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.

Credits: PA


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 occurs today, Wednesday, December 21. The sun will rise in the UK at 08:04 GMT and set at 15:54 GMT, giving just 7 hours and 49 minutes of daylight.

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.

Credits: PA


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.

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.

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 Wednesday, 21 June 2017.

England's best places to get into the Christmas spirit
See Gallery
England's best places to get into the Christmas spirit
The fairytale magic of the famous ballet will sweep everyone along into an enchanting winter wonderland this festive season as Chatsworth House is transformed to present the festive tale. The magnificent stately home will be complete with beautiful decorations, lavish costumes and wonderful stage sets that tell the story of The Nutcracker, transporting visitors to a magical world populated by Nutcracker soldiers, elegant ballerinas and dancing snowflakes. All the cast will be on view - from the Mouse King and the Sugar Plum Fairy to the Nutcracker and Clara - to depict the story in a series of stunning tableau scenes throughout the house. When? 5 November to 3 January.

Bringing the curtain down on the safari park’s 50th birthday celebrations in remarkable style, this eye-catching event will take the age-old tradition of the Chinese lantern and transform it for today’s modern audience, using around 40 types of animals and 2,500 individual lanterns. Longleat’s Festival of Light will this year also mark 150 years of Beatrix Potter by combining a collection of its own safari animals with some of the author’s key characters in a series of delightful scenes built by Longleat’s creative partners in China. When? 11 November to 2 January.

Take a delightful steam train journey on Tenterden’s Steam Railway this Christmas to meet Santa on board and enjoy a relaxing journey on the festively decorated Santa Special as it makes its way to the 'North Pole'. Guests will be greeted by a beautiful Victorian carousel with prancing horses just waiting to take everyone on a glorious ride. Back at Tenterden station, the fun continues with a Giant Snow Globe, where everyone can pose for a free colour family photograph as a memento of their special day. When? 3, 4, 10, 11, 17, 18, 22, 23 and 24 December.

Visitors to Norwich’s 'Tunnel of Light' will experience a wonderland display made from 50,000 pulsating LEDs, running from Gentleman’s Walk to The Forum. The sequenced lights will reflect the patterns and colours of the Northern Lights, creating a display of mesmeric dancing beams, the likes of which the city has never seen before. Inspiration for the tunnel was taken from Nagashia Resort’s theme park Nabana no Sato in Japan. In addition, three original film projections of distinct Christmas stories will be broadcast nightly on the iconic Art Deco City Hall and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The 280-foot-long projection at City Hall will tell a traditional Christmas narrative, while at Norwich Castle there will be two 70-foot-high films of contemporary Christmas adventure. When? 17 November to 5 January.
The animated stars of DreamWorks movies will be lighting up Liverpool this Christmas with a spectacular walkthrough experience of large scale lanterns. It’s a UK first for the city as Liverpool’s iconic Grade I listed St George’s Hall welcomes Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda and the Penguins of Madagascar as part of DreamWorks Lights. Visitors will also have the opportunity to get up close with their favourite characters through a special green-screen photo experience and shop. When? 26 November to 15 January.
Discover a Mid-Winter Night’s Tale through a trail of art installations with lights, performances, sculptures and projections. Part of Light up the North, a network of seven light festivals taking place in seven cities across the North of England, this after-dark arts adventure sees specially commissioned artists transform Gateshead’s Victorian Saltwell Park into a magical and mythical wonderland. Inspired by the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, this year’s Enchanted Parks will take visitors on an intriguing journey, where a hidden manuscript found inside the Towers has unleashed a strange kind of magic, as A Midwinter Night’s Tale slowly comes to life. When? 6 to 11 December.

Nestled in the heart of Staffordshire, New House Farm is home to over 150 reindeer which roam freely across a 30-acre site. The magic truly arrives this Christmas as Blithbury Reindeer Lodge is transformed into a winter wonderland, filled with twinkling lights, Christmas trees, Santa and his little helpers and - of course – reindeer, as well as sleigh rides. Feed and fuss over 100 reindeer, have story time with the Head Elf and embark on a personal visit to meet Santa, access to his toy workshop and attend Elf School. When? From 11 November (Friday evenings and weekends), open days 20 to 23 December.

This is a wonderful opportunity to see the flicker of hundreds of candles illuminating the state rooms of Holkham Hall. A guide will take you for an early evening tour to see the decorations, learn about how they were created and listen to the intriguing stories of Holkham’s history and of its residents past and present. Included is a glass of Prosecco, or a soft drink and a mince pie in the Courtyard Café. When? 30 November to 2 December; 7 to 9 December; 14 to 16 December.

This magical night time event invites visitors to explore the zoo after dark and relish in the night time sounds, beautiful lantern-lit gardens and magnificent, larger than life animal lanterns. Designed and performed by The Lantern Company, this year’s lantern sculptures and puppets at Chester Zoo include many new characters. Take a stroll through the enchanted forest and celebrate local woodland and garden creatures – maybe even catching a glimpse of Santa on his sleigh. When? 25 to 27 November, 2 to 3 December, 9 to 11 December, 16 to 23 December.
Blenheim Palace’s Formal Gardens will be transformed into an enchanted illuminated wonderland this Christmas. The hour-long trail will include scented fire gardens, singing Christmas trees and a lake aglow with brightly lit boats filled with snowflakes and presents. Other highlights include the fairy-lit arbour, the lakeside boathouse which will become a temporary home for Santa Claus and the Cascades which will also be bathed in light. Cultural inspiration has been taken from Blenheim Palace’s baroque architecture and six Formal Gardens sat within 2,000 acres of ‘Capability’ Brown landscape. When? 25 November to 2 January.

Read Full Story