Winter solstice

The winter solstice is the time of shortest days, lowest sun and least solar energy. The solstice usually occurs on 21 December. The croplands are not yet in the depths of winter: there can be snow and hard frost next to warm days when the air temperature rises.  Yet the crops and wild plants are hardly growing.

Images around the winter solstice (Living Field / Squire)
Images around the winter solstice (Living Field / Squire)

Images around the winter solstice

1 Ploughed field. 2 Green field. 3 Snow field.

4 Shoots of field bean Vicia faba sprouting from last year’s dropped seed. 5 Ice field. 6 Haar-rimed young winter cereal plants.

6 Frosted hazel leaf showing ‘veins’ that carried last year’s water. 7 Stubble field. 8. Haar field.

Haar is a dense sea-mist that can cover the croplands at any time of year. On a cold day in winter it sometimes deposits frozen rime on crops, trees, walls, fences and any other surface. Images are from Angus and Perthshire.

Solar energy and the air’s temperature

The graph shows the location of the winter solstice (WS) on the annual cycles of solar energy and temperature. The solar cycle, the orange line marked ‘sol’ on the graph, is at its lowest point.  The days are shortest around this time, the sun is at its lowest altitude in the sky and is often obscured by cloud. The weather can be bright for a time around the middle of the day, but more commonly there is cloud and sometimes a sea fog, a haar that ‘drips’ ice.

The position and usual date of the winter solstice, WS (Living Field)

The position and usual date of the winter solstice, WS (Living Field)

Temperature is still declining and in most years has not yet reached its lowest point.  On some days it can be over 10 degrees Celsius and on others just below zero.  The temperature depends on where the wind is blowing from, whether warm from the south-east or icy cold from the north. A strong north easterly takes only a few hours to get from Siberia. The direction of the wind depends on the position of weather patterns in the north Atlantic: as they move across Britain and onto mainland Europe, the wind – and temperature – can change  by the hour.

[Source graphs at The Year explain how the sol-temp graph was derived and examples of the day to day variation.]

Light and dark

The winter solstice is the darkest point in the year’s cycle. Night is almost three times as long as day.


At latitude 56 N, on 21 December 2015, sunrise is 08.45 and sunset 15.36 (Universal Time).

The crops

There are four states to the arable fields: harvested and ploughed, showing bare soil and no crop; harvested and still in stubble, the crops yet to be sown; harvested late summer and sown in autumn with winter crops and now showing rows of green shoots; and in the minority, fields of ‘root’ crops and forages, sown earlier and now full and green.

The weather variable – the fields can be open, revealing the greens and browns of crops, soil and stubble; or else covered in sheets of ice or snow, or frozen-drenched in haar.  It depends in the weather-patterns in the north Atlantic – a wind from the balmy south or a freezing down-draught from Iceland, the Baltic or Siberia. It can change day by day.

Of the winter crops, oilseed rape is perhaps the most sensitive; it needs to be sown as early in the autumn as possible, giving it time to get its roots down into the soil and a good canopy of leaf before the winter chill starts to cut it back. Delay in sowing much after late August will bring a yield penalty next summer.  Winter barley and winter wheat, and occasionally winter oat, should all be showing bright green rows of emerged shoots, but mostly not yet closed into  a complete leaf canopy.

The ploughed and stubble fields are most likely waiting for the spring sowings, three to four months to go.

The tradition

Festivals, events, song , music around the winter solstice

Festivals and events

There are many, this time of year, marking the low point in the sun’s calendar, some ancient or revived from the past, some more recent and building on ancient markings, the traditional customs hanging on, reinvented and sometimes almost disappeared. Here are a few  [in progress …… .

  • Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus in the Christian tradition
  • Winter solstice at ancient monuments – sunrise at at Maes Howe, Orkney, and gathering at Stonehenge.
  • The european traditions around St Nicolas (Santa Claus)
  • Wassailing …

[in progress]

Music and song

Great music and song also – traditional and written carols, chants and liturgies, the turning (in time and mind).

The record label Free Reed published its box set titled Midwinter: a celebration of the folk music and traditions of Christmas and the Turning of the Year. 2006. Booklet (Nigel Schofield) and 4 CDs. Unrivalled for breadth of coverage.

Tracks and downloads
  • Da Day Dawn: ‘played in Lerwick Shetland before New Year’s Day’ – see Mairi Campbell’s Music  for fiddle tune and song (It’s the dawning of the turning of the year….).
  • ‘Christmas is now drawing near at hand’: solo folk carol, sung by Lal Waterson on Frost and Fire (Topic)
  • ‘Thou shalt’ by Chris Wood “…but your body will suffer at the turning of the year …”, from the album None the Wiser,  see also this blog)
  • Wassail song – ‘Here we come a wassailing’ on Frost and Fire (Topic Records); several other seasonal songs and olk carols on this LP – ‘The holly bears a berry’,  ‘Herod and the Cock’.

[in progress] 

sustainable croplands