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Midnight is, literally, "the middle of the night". In most systems it is when one day ends and the next begins: when the date changes. Originally midnight was halfway between sunset and dawn, varying according to the seasons.

Solar midnight is that time opposite of solar noon, when the sun is closest to nadir and the night is equidistant from dusk and dawn. Due to the advent of time zones, which make time identical across a range of meridian, and daylight saving time, it rarely coincides with midnight on a clock. Solar midnight is dependent on longitude, latitude, altitude, and time of the year rather than on a time zone.

Start and end of day

Midnight marks the beginning and ending of each day in civil time throughout the world. It is the dividing point between one day and another.

But it is unknown as to whether "midnight" belongs to the previous day or the next day. I.e., if we are to meet at "midnight December 24th," is that at the beginning of Dec. 24th or the end?

With 12-hour time notation, most authorities recommend avoiding confusion by using "midnight", "12 midnight", or "12:00 midnight".

Digital clocks and computers commonly display 12 a.m. for midnight. While that phrase may be used practically, it helps to understand that any particular time is actually an instant. The "a.m." shown on clock displays refers to the 12-hour period following the instant of midnight, not to the instant itself. In other words, 11:59 p.m. shows until midnight; at the instant of midnight it flips to 12:00. Simultaneously, the p.m. flips to a.m., though, strictly speaking, a.m. does not apply to the instant of midnight which separates p.m. and a.m.

In 24-hour time notation, "00:00" and "00:00:00" refer to midnight at the start of a given date. Some styles, such as ISO 8601, allow 24:00 to refer to the end of a day. Noon is 12:00:00.

While computers and digital clocks display "12:00 a.m." and "12:00 p.m.", those notations provide no clear and unambiguous way to distinguish between midnight and noon. It is actually improper to use "a.m." and "p.m." when referring to 12:00. The abbreviation a.m. stands for ante meridiem or before noon and p.m. stands for post meridiem or after noon. Since noon and midnight are neither after noon nor before noon, neither abbreviation is correct (although the length of the error is determined by the smallest unit of time — 12:00:01 p.m. would be correctly notated). Similarly, midnight is both twelve hours before as well as twelve hours after noon, so both are ambiguous as to the date intended.

The most common ways to represent these times are, (a) to use a 24-hour clock (00:00 and 12:00, 24:00), (b) to use "12 noon" or "12 midnight", although unless the person is referring to a general time and not a specific day, "12 midnight" is still ambiguous, (c) to specify it between two successive days or dates (Midnight Saturday/Sunday or Midnight December 14/15), and (d) to use "12:01 a.m." or "11:59 p.m." This final usage is common in the travel industry, especially train and plane schedules, to avoid confusion as to passengers' schedules.

The 30th edition of the U.S. Government Style Manual (2008) sections 9.54 and 12.9b recommends the use of "12 a.m." for midnight and "12 p.m." for noon.

Some religious calendars continue to begin the day at another time — for example, at dusk in the Hebrew calendar and the Islamic calendar.

Cultural meanings

In traditional magical thinking , "midnight" refers to solar midnight, which is opposite solar noon. These form an axis linking the mundane world with otherworlds by being the apogee of darkness and the perigee of light. Thus, traditional midnight is associated with chaos, death, underworld and mystery. It was seen as a moment when sacrum manifests itself and epiphanies were most likely. The epiphanies expected were those associated with darkness, so it was thought that at midnight, visitation from spirits, ghosts, demons and devils were common.

All the supernatural creatures of darkness — reminiscent of feared nocturnal predators — were believed to haunt the night, their potency greatest at its central point, midnight. According to Slavic folklore, midnight was time when strigas rose from graves to suck the blood of mortals, zmoras assailed the sleeping to steal their breath, and devils came for sinners. Polishmarker Jews believed that it was the time when dybbuks possessed people, causing insanity.

As night's attributes are chaos and primordiality, all the acts of summoning from otherworlds were easiest to perform at the culmination of the night. Supernatural entities like demons and devils universally answered a human call — be it death wish, curse of famine, prostration or pact with the devil. All the acts of sorcery, witchcraft, necromancy were easiest then. While some beliefs stated that elaborate rituals were needed, some other folklore ascribed unholy power to such simple acts as calling the devil at crossroads at midnight. Even peeking into a mirror at night (without a reliable clock one could never be certain what time it was) was dangerous, as the devil himself could have looked back.

Midnight was also the time to gather the ingredients used in magical acts done at other times, so various herbs were thought to be most potent when harvested at midnight.

In the modern world, midnight is the symbolic end of the world according to the Doomsday Clock.


See also


  1. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Physics Laboratory, Time and Frequency Division
  2. The 29th edition of the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (2000) section 12.9 recommended the opposite the use of "12 p.m." for midnight and "12 a.m." (formerly "12 m.") for noon.
  3. Leksykon Znaki Świata - Omen, przesąd, znaczenie by Piotr Kowalski, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1998 (in Polish)

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