Daylight has been scarce in the last few weeks, and unfortunately, we can't expect things to improve until the end of the month. As the days go by, it feels like your only chance of actually seeing the sun is heading outside around lunchtime... which is a little depressing, to say the least. The only upside to the increasing darkness? The winter solstice is approaching, which is also known as the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and things can only get (a little) sunnier from there. Unfortunately, it's also the first official day of winter, so don't expect temperatures to get any warmer — and in addition, astrologists are also warning that, due to both the Sun and Saturn entering the sign Capricorn, it's going to be the unluckiest day of the year. But, this is normal? Or, does the winter solstice date change every year?
It would make sense for the solstice to fall on the same date each year — it always seems to happen right before the holidays, and honestly, who can really remember the exact date of each winter solstice? But actually, the date varies. The December solstice can happen on one of four dates: Dec. 20, 21, 22, or 23.
More often than not, you'll find that the winter solstice falls on Dec. 21 or 22 — like this year! — which isn't surprising, and can lead people to believe that those are the only two days it can happen. A Dec. 20 or 23 solstice is super rare. The last time the solstice fell on Dec. 23 was in 1903, and according to TimeAndDate.com, won't happen again until 2303 (which, uh, I'm assuming we won't live to see). The same goes for a Dec. 20 solstice — the next time that will happen will be 2080. So, it's safe to say that for the rest of your life, you can expect the winter solstice to fall on either Dec. 21 or 22.
Why does the date change? The most simple reason is this: the solstices are dependent upon where the sun rises or sets. For winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it depends on when the sun rises or sets maximally south. Since we as humans obviously can't control that, we're dependent on the sun, and that can vary slightly. The rotation of the Earth also influences the solstice dates.
Another reason for the change in dates gets a little bit more technical. It' because of the Gregorian calendar, which, as you well know, has 365 days in a regular year and 366 days in a leap year. This is where it gets a little bit confusing: there's a tropical year, which is "the length of time the sun takes to return to the same position in the seasons cycle." According to TimeAndDate.com, this is "approximately 365.242199 days," but because of the influence of other planets, it changes each year.
While this Dec. 21 signifies the first official day of winter and the shortest day of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it's important to remember that, on the other, slightly sunnier side of the world, it signifies the first day of summer. Ah, to be in Australia, soaking up the sun on the beach! Instead, I'll be here with the rest of you, saying goodbye to the sun at 4 p.m. and daydreaming about light.