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What is a Solstice?

The orientation of Stonehenge, a megalithic site in Great Britain, aligns with the sun during the solstices and equinoxes.
Litha, a Wiccan holy day, is associated with the summer solstice.
Hanukkah occurs near the winter solstice.
Many cultures have holidays around the winter solstice.
Article Details
  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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Solstices are short periods during the course of the calendar year when the equator of the Earth is at the greatest distance from the sun. This phenomenon is created when the axis of the planet is tiled directly towards or away from the sun, causing the exposure of the equator of the planet to be further away from the rays of the sun. The time of solstice also has a direct impact on the amount of daylight that is experienced in different parts of the world just before, during, and after the occurrence.

The name for this period when the equator is furthest from the sun has its roots in two Latin words or terms. Sol is Latin for the sun, while sistere is understood to translate as standing still. Thus, a solstice is a time when it appears that the sun is standing still rather than moving around the earth. The actual word dates back to a time in human history when the earth was understood to be the center of the universe.

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In many cultures, the solstice marks the midway point of a given season. People around the world tend to be familiar with the summer and winter solstices. What may be less well known is that many of the important holidays that are important to many different faiths and cultures take place in close proximity to these two periods. Holidays such as Saturnalia, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa occur close to the winter solstice. Midsummer, St. John’s Eve, and the Wiccan holy day of Litha are all associated with the summer solstice.

In addition to the two times when the earth’s axis tilts the equator away from the sun, some people also count the occurrence of seasonal equinoxes as a time of solstice. The celebrations of Passover and Easter occur around the time of the spring equinox, while the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is close to the autumn equinox.

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