What is the winter solstice?

By Candice Marshall 20 June 2023
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Winter solstice is commemorated worldwide. But what exactly is it? And why does it happen?

Put simply, the winter solstice is the shortest day (and longest night) of the year. But there’s a lot more to it than that. 

The winter solstice marks the moment the Earth’s South Pole reaches its furthest tilt away from the Sun.

“During the Southern Hemisphere’s June, or winter, solstice, the Sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, marking the shortest day of the year and longest night,” explains astronomy expert Glenn Dawes.

“During the solstice, Earth’s Southern Hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, while at the same time the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards it, resulting in the longest day of the year there.

“The word “solstice” comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the Sun was believed to stand still for a moment before changing direction.”

The Earth’s angle relative to the sun on the date of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. Image credit: weatherzone

Here in the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs each year between 21 and 23 June.

Following the winter solstice, days start to become longer (and nights shorter) until the summer solstice (the longest day and shortest night of the year), which occurs between 21 and 23 December.

Winter solstice traditions

Th winter solstice has long been celebrated worldwide, with different cultures and religions partaking in various traditions, rituals and festivals.

In Australia, hundreds of Tasmanians brave the icy waters for the Nude Solstice Swim – a communal skinny dip in the River Derwent at Long Beach, Sandy Bay. The cheeky swim also marks the end of Hobart’s Dark Mofo winter festival

And at Australia’s research stations in Antarctica and on Macquarie Island, expeditioners take on an even colder swim – plunging into sub-zero temperature waters.

Meanwhile, across Australia, a much warmer tradition occurs at numerous locations holding lantern festivals to mark the occasion.