19th century book illustration showing the orbit of the Sun around the Earth

Inspiration : A Solstice Star

19th century book illustration showing the orbit of the Sun around the Earth

The winter solstice 2020 is a marker of time and seasons in a year where time has stretched and compressed and warped while we spent the year in isolation from the Coronavirus. I have gathered some information and ideas on how to mark the day.

The Solar System from an 19th century bookImage Source

The world 'solstice' comes from the Latin solstitium meaning 'Sun stands still’. Monday 21st December marks the end of Autumn and the beginning of Winter until the Spring Equinox. This will take place on 20th March 2021. A solstice is a moment when the Earth’s axis is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun. During the December solstice the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun causing our winter. 

This year, in London, the shortest day is due to last 7 hours 49 minutes and 42 seconds. This year is also special because we have...

...the Solstice Star

The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and SaturnImage Source

Thirteen years after Galileo Galilei observed the moons of Jupiter, in 1610, the solar system’s two giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, traveled together across the sky. Jupiter passed by Saturn, in an astronomical event known as a “Great Conjunction.” This happens again today, 21st December 2020.

From our point of view on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn (the two gas giants) will align and appear to be just 0.1º away from each other. This is so close they will appear to be one bright star. For the first time since the 17th century!

You can see the Solstice Star, weather permitting, on Monday. The best time should be soon after sunset and it will appear in the south west.

Photography by Patrick Ford of the 9ct Gold Twig RingPhotography by Patrick Ford of the 9ct Gold Twig Ring

For many cultures, the winter solstice symbolises the rebirth of the Sun. This is the longest night of the year, but now the nights will start to get shorter, and the days will grow longer. 

A 19th century man observing the sunImage Source

Ways to mark the Winter Solstice 2020 in the UK:

  • You can see the Solstice Star, weather permitting, on Monday. The best time should be soon after sunset and it will appear in the south west.
  • Stonehenge will be live-streaming the Winter Solstice here: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/things-to-do/solstice/
  • Archaeologists believe that people in Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, were gathering in large numbers, eating massive quantities of pork and celebrating midwinter. We may not be able to gather this year but we could definitely have a small feast (Percy Pigs might be a pork substitute in my house!)
Screenshot from the English Heritage Stonehenge Winter Solstice 2020 livestreamStill from the English Heritage livestream of the Winter Solstice sunset at Stonehenge
Before Christmas, Scandinavians celebrated Juul. This is the origin of the Yule log which was burned to praise Thor, the Norse god of Thunder. 

The Ancient Romans would start celebrating Saturnalia on the 17th December and, in Cicero's time, continue celebrating for 7 days. Though (much like our current government) the Roman emperors did try to reduce the length of the celebrations. Augustus limited the holiday to three days, so the civil courts would not have to be closed any longer than necessary (Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.10.4), and Caligula extended it to five (Suetonius, Life of Caligula, XVII; Dio, Roman History, LIX.6.4)

People would make sacrifices at the Temple of Saturn before banqueting and giving gifts. The usual law and order would be suspended, schools and businesses would close, and quarrels would be forgotten. Slaves were allowed to swap places with their masters, and one person was elected king for the duration of the festival. The wealthy distributed gifts to the poor. Gifts included wax candles called cerei and earthenware figures called sigillaria. A felt cap, pileus, normally worn by the freed slave was worn to symbolise the freedom of the season.

Zoroastrian evergreen tree carving.Zoroastrian evergreen tree. Image source.


Yalda is an Iranian festival celebrated on the longest and darkest night of the year. It has origins in Zoroastrianism, where darkness is associated with evil. Friends and family spend the longest night together and stay up until dawn, eating, drinking and reading poetry. Pomegranates in particular are eaten… making an interesting connection to Persephone’s trip to the darkness. The colour red represents the dawn and glowing life. 

Detail from Proserpine by Rossetti (1874)Detail from Proserpine by Rossetti (1874)
However you are marking the day this year, the longest night has past and brighter days are coming.
That's all for now!