The science and mystery around winter solstice

Year’s longest night.
Something magical about
the winter solstice
— Rachel Dickinson

Despite being celebrated by ancient cultures, based in science and loaded with symbolism about death and rebirth, the shortest day of the year is often overlooked during the holiday season — not to mention literally outshone by the other 364 days.

This year, the solstice will occur in Portland at 7:59 a.m. on Dec. 21. With sunrise at 7:48 a.m. and sunset at 4:30 p.m., that makes for a total daylight tally of 8 hours and 46 minutes.

Professor Paul Loikith, director of Portland State’s Climate Science Lab, explains that winter solstice is the point in the year when the sun’s direct rays are the farthest south in the entire annual cycle. And it’s all about the tilt: Because the Earth is tilted at 23.5 degrees as it orbits the sun, different parts of Earth are pointed directly at the sun at different times of the year. The direct rays range from 23.5 degrees north latitude (this is the summer solstice) to 23.5 degrees south latitude (the winter solstice).

In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice results in the least amount of daylight hours of the year and the lowest sun angle of the year. This means that days will stop getting shorter and will slowly begin to get longer after Dec. 21 as we move toward the summer solstice in June.

This is what many people take away from the winter solstice — that the days will finally start getting longer again.

But there’s also a spiritual meaning to the day. Celebrated by ancient civilizations, indigenous cultures and various religions as the rebirth of the sun, it “is believed to hold a powerful energy for regeneration, renewal and self-reflection,” according to Bustle Digital Group. Did you know the primary axis of Stonehenge is aligned to the sunset on winter solstice? Every year, thousands gather there to celebrate the occasion.

But the solstice is also meant to be a time of quiet energy, where you get the opportunity to look within and focus on what you want and need. It’s a time to set goals and intentions for the coming year, to examine and let go of our past, and to make changes within ourselves. The solstice is essentially tied to a personal awakening.

So in a sense, the shortest day of the year is actually meant to be an enlightening experience.


The Portland State Climate Science Lab conducts weather and climate research with particular focus on the drivers of extreme events such as extreme temperature and precipitation. The lab team consists of undergraduate and graduate student researchers as well as faculty researchers. Current research topics include investigating the impact of climate change on weather patterns over the Pacific Northwest, what drives the rate of increase in extreme heat stress events across different parts of the globe, and the atmospheric dynamics associated with the 2020 Labor Day wildfires.

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