While much of the world is putting up trees for Christmas or lighting menorah for Hanukkah, there is another spiritual celebration awaiting us in December, one that is mysterious, ancient and intriguing, allowing a perfect excuse to visit this beautiful and historic corners of the British Isles.
Let us tell you about winter solstice…
Frost & berries © Unhindered by Talent
While temperatures have been plummeting in Europe for what feels like many months already, winter solstice actually marks the official beginning of winter. Most people in the UK will be aware of the day winter solstice falls on, as it’s also the shortest day and longest night of the year. Not everyone will know though that this is also the time when the sun appears lowest in the sky due to the Earth’s angle on its axis and its position relative to the sun. It is for these reasons that celebrations are focused on the specific time the sun rises, reaches its peak and then sets. This year the sun will be at its highest point at 11:12 am on 21st December.
There is evidence to suggest that this astronomical event has been recognised since neolithic times, when the stars, moon and sun influenced farming and mythologies and theories about life. Archeologists say that Stonehenge was built in around 3100 BC for the marking of the sun’s setting on winter solstice, and a prehistoric monument of similar age found in Ireland called Newgrange was built on a man’s line of sight for the sun’s rise on the same day.
Newgrange © Collin Key
While Stonehenge is a magnificent and mind-blowing sight to see at any time of the year, marking winter solstice here a once in a lifetime experience, with several solstice stalwarts from a number of “New Age Tribes” gathering to mark the most important day in their calendar. Winter solstice is seen as an occasion of ‘spiritual awakening’ and people watch the sun to see what it predicts for the year ahead.
With access to Stonehenge being limited all year round and in particular on winter solstice, there is a special organised tour on the day so you’ll need to book tickets in advance.
Winter solstice at Stonehenge © Mark! Ch.
Not far from Stonehenge is Glastonbury, a place more famous for its muddy music festival that its historic roots as one of the most popular places to celebrate winter solstice. On what is believed to be a man-made mound – though it has never been excavated to investigate further – stands Glastonbury Tor: a lonely church tower believed to be the last in a long line of monuments that have stood here in honour of both winter and summer solstices. This site has connections to many historic legends, including that of King Arthur. Climb up to have breathtaking views of the sun rising and setting across the patchwork of green fields that make up the surrounding countryside.
Glastonbury Tor at dawn © midlander1231
If you’re looking to become an observer – or participant – in winter solstice in Glastonbury or Stonehenge, you could combine this experience with a stay in the Somerset countryside, where rolling hills will keep you away from the hustle and bustle of cities, and may just provide the perfect backdrop to your own private winter solstice celebration.
First image © Hackworth