7:48 PM 20th December 2020
The Winter Solstice And The Great Conjunction
When is it?
Winter sun - photo Samet Kilic
The date of the winter solstice is different each year and can fall anywhere between 20 December and 23 December. In 2020 it will be on Monday 21 December in the northern hemisphere - the same day of the great conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter.
Jupiter and Saturn will only be 0.1 degrees apart on the same day as the solstice. Some people say that the two planets will look like an elongated star. When the planets of Jupiter and Saturn appear this close it is called a great conjunction and happens every 20 years but the one in 2020 will be the closest since 1623. The great conjunction in 2020 won’t be matched until 15 March 2080, so let’s hope we don’t miss it.
What is it?
Winter sunset - photo Emeline Yulb
The winter solstice is also known as midwinter and is an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight with the sun at its lowest in the sky. It occurs when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere.
The word 'solstice' comes from the Latin solstitium meaning 'sun stands still' because the apparent movement of the sun's path north or south stops before changing direction.
Solstices are opposite on either side of the equator, so the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere and vice versa.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the winter solstice falls on June 21 - the same day of the summer solstice in the north.
Who celebrates it?
Sunset over Stonehenge - photo Myke Lyons
The druids are associated with the solstices and mark the start of the solar year with a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun.
The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of people can gather there every year to celebrate the occasion. Stonehenge has been a prehistoric site of worship and celebration for thousands of years.
Stonehenge is now a World Heritage Site. The Heel Stone which is the largest stone at Stonehenge weighs about 30 tons. It is said that the giant stones of Stonehenge were so positioned to align with the midwinter sunset at the winter solstice and the midsummer sunrise at the summer solstice.
The good news is that after the winter solstice, which is the shortest day, the days start to get longer and the nights shorter.
Let’s hope that the sky stays clear for us all to see this great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.