When we say the longest days of the year come each year around the December solstice, we’re talking about the day not as a period of daylight, but as the interval from one solar noon or midday to the next. In December, a day – one rotation of Earth relative to the noonday sun – is about one-half minute longer than the average 24 hours.
This year, the December solstice arrives on December 21, at 22:23 UTC. That’s 16:23 (4:23 p.m.) CST for the Central time zone in North America. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice ushers in our shortest period of daylight and longest period of darkness for the year. And yet – if we consider the length of the day in another light – the longest days of the year come each year in December for the entire globe.
Keep in mind that the clocks on our walls don’t measure the true length of a solar day. To measure the time from one solar noon to the next, you need a sundial. A sundial will tell you the precise moment of local solar noon – when the sun reaches its highest point for the day.
The featured photo at the top of this post shows an analemma. It’s a way of depicting the height of the sun’s path across our skies, for every day of the year. Analemmas show show the sun’s declination – its angular distance from the celestial equator – and the difference (in minutes) between time as measured by the clock and time as measured by the sun. Click here to read more about analemmas.
So it’s December now, and that means one rotation of the Earth relative to the sun – what we call a solar day – is about one-half minute longer than the average 24 hours, for the entire globe.
Days are always longer – as measured from one solar noon to the next – than 24 hours around the solstices, and less than 24 hours around the the equinoxes.
The days are at their longest now – for the whole globe – because we’re closer to the sun on the December solstice than we are at the June solstice. Earth’s perihelion – closest point to the sun – always comes in early January. When we’re closest to the sun, our planet is moving a little faster than average in its orbit. That means our planet is traveling through space a little farther than average each day. The result is that Earth has to rotate a little more on its axis for the sun to return to its noontime position. Hence the longer solar day.
Half a minute longer doesn’t sound like much, but the difference adds up. For instance, two weeks before the December solstice, noontime comes about seven minutes earlier by the clock than on the December solstice. And then two weeks after the December solstice, noon by the clock comes about seven minutes later later by the clock than on the December solstice itself. Because the clock and sun are most out of sync right now, some befuddling phenomena cause people to scratch their heads at this time of year.
Click here to find out the clock time for solar noon at your locality, remembering to check the Solar noon box.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the year’s earliest sunset precedes the December winter solstice, and the year’s latest sunrise comes after the December winter solstice.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the year’s earliest sunrise precedes the December summer solstice, and the year’s latest sunset comes after the December summer solstice.
Although the solstice brings the shortest/longest period of daylight, the earliest sunset/sunrise always comes before the solstice, and latest sunrise/sunset always comes afterwards.
The fact that we’re closest to the sun in early January also means that Northern Hemisphere winter (Southern Hemisphere summer) is the shortest of the four seasons. At the same time … ‘tis the season of bountifully long solar days.
Bottom line: As measured from one solar noon to the next, December has the longest days – the longest day/night cycle – for the whole Earth.