Differences between the Summer and Winter Solstices

Both the winter and summer solstices have been an important part of human understanding regarding the changes in seasons for millennia. The differences in the two solstices are central to daily living. Although the importance may have been lost to the modern world, ancient cultures depended on these celestial events, built huge monuments, and held elaborate celebrations to mark and commemorate them.


Occurring twice a year and marking the longest and shortest day of the year, this is when the sun reaches its highest and lowest point in the sky as seen from the poles. Appearing to stand still before reversing direction, the sun seems to rise and set in the same spot for a few days. The earth’s axial tilt places it either closest to or farthest from the sun, foreshadowing lengthening or shortening of daylight hours that heralds seasonal changes.  The Northern Hemisphere experiences the summer solstice when the Southern Hemisphere is experiencing the winter solstice and vice versa. Closer to the equator, between both tropics, the sun remains high in the sky and is never very low resulting in year round tropical, humid weather with little seasonal changes. 

Winter Solstice

Around December 21 in the Northern Hemisphere and June 21 in the Southern Hemisphere is the date of the winter solstice. The earth, tilted at an angle of about 23.5 degrees away from the sun, is at its maximum axial tilt in that direction. The time at which this occurs is the actual solstice. At noon, the sun will be above the horizon at its lowest altitude of the year directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, latitude 23.5 degrees north. South of the equator, the sun will be directly above the Tropic of Cancer, latitude 23.5 degrees south. Daylight will be at its minimum, making this the shortest day and longest night of the year. The poles at this time receive 24 hours of darkness. This does not mean that the sun will rise at its latest time and set at its earliest nor is it the coldest day of the year. During winter the sun’s rays are hitting the earth at oblique angles therefore the energy is less concentrated than in summer and colder temperatures abound. Thanks to the earth’s rotation, the days will gradually become longer, as the sun moves higher in the sky until the summer solstice.

The first day of winter, midwinter, the longest night and Yule are other names that are synonymous with winter solstice. The birth of a divine son on this day is a common belief system in most cultural legends revolving around the many sites that mark this day.

Summer Solstice

In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice occurs around June 21 and in the Southern Hemisphere around December 21. The earth, tilted at an angle of about 23.5 degrees towards the sun, is at its maximum axial tilt in that direction. Reaching Zenith at noon local time, the sun will be at its most northern point in the sky, its highest altitude of the year. South of the equator, the sun will be directly above the Tropic of Capricorn and in the north directly above the Tropic of Cancer. At this time, the poles receive 24 hours of sunlight. The longest day and shortest night of the year signifies that summer has arrived. Because of the axial tilt, the sun’s energy will be more concentrated during the following few months and as the sun continues on its course, it will gradually become lower in the sky until the winter solstice.

The first day of summer, midsummer and the longest day, are terms synonymous with the summer solstice. As with the winter solstice, around the globe there are ancient temples, pyramids and mounds precisely aligned with the summer solstice. Near the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, where the sun is directly overhead, are perhaps the most impressive markers. While the celebrations surrounding the winter solstice were to celebrate winter and the coming of the growing season, the time of rebirth, the summer solstice celebrations were to celebrate summer and the coming of the harvest season.

Solstice markers

Around the world, ancient monuments channel the winter and summer solstice sun extremely precisely, especially in areas closest to both tropic latitudes. The Tropic of Cancer passes through Mexico, the Bahamas, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, India and southern China. The Tropic of Capricorn passes through Australia, Chile, southern Brazil and northern South Africa. Stonehenge in England, Newgrange mound in Ireland, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in Mexico. Temple of Karnak in Egypt and the Sun Gate at Tiwanaku in Bolivia, are examples of winter solstice monuments. Stonehenge in England, the Carnac Complex in France, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in Mexico and the Guimar Pyramids in Tenerife, are examples of summer solstice alignments.

Traditions the world over center around the changing seasons and the height of summer and the depths of winter are no exceptions. One must pass before the other can arrive, thus celebrations were held to ensure the continuation of this cycle.