Every December, hordes of tourists and locals descend upon the iconic landmark of Stonehenge to celebrate the winter solstice sunrise.
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice normally falls on the 21st December, the date which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Across the UK and all over Europe, solstice celebrations tend to be associated with Christmas and the festive season, but these rituals and observances date from centuries before the dawn of Christianity, and many of the holiday traditions we know today have evolved from these pagan customs and ceremonies.
The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), and the winter solstice occurs at the point when the North Pole is tilted farthest away from the sun. Though it represents just a moment in time, this astronomical event marked a turning point in the cycle of life in Bronze Age and neolithic times, and heralded a period of feasting, fermenting and celebrating the idea of rebirth and renewal. To this day, it continues to be interpreted in similar ways in cultures across the world.
In line with pagan and druid traditions, the annual gathering at Stonehenge takes place on the morning following the shortest day, as it is the first sunrise after the astronomical phenomenon that is celebrated. This year, the sun will rise at 08:04 GMT on 22nd December. The monument field will open at 07:45, and the event is overseen by the charity English Heritage, who offer plenty of tips and advice on reaching the landmark if you’re travelling to the site independently.
If you’re based in London, an easy option is to book an organised tour which offers transport by luxury coach, and unrestricted access to the famous stones’ inner circle – something not generally possible on other days of the year. Bookable via Stonehenge Tours, the excursion costs £99 for adults (£89 for children) and departures from the nearby city of Bath are also available.
Other solstice happenings
Elsewhere in the UK, other solstice celebrations include the annual Burning the Clocks parade in Brighton. This free spectator event marks the end of the solar year with a procession of paper and willow lanterns through the city, before throwing them onto a roaring bonfire on Brighton beach. An open ritual will also take place at the Standing Stones of Stenness on the mainland of Orkney, off the northeast coast of Scotland. The annual event occurs on the nearest weekend day to the actual solstice, with this year’s gathering at 2pm on Saturday 23rd December.
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