In December 2019, before sunrise, in the cold and dark, a crowd of approximately five thousand people make their way towards Stonehenge. Temperatures would not reach higher than 6°C but, still, they gather in the dark to watch the sun rise between the stones. The crowd sings as one, led by a Druid choir in the centre of the stones and, as the sun rises, a cheer goes up and the Winter Solstice celebrations begin. Many of these people are modern-day Druids and Wiccans – both of which fall under the umbrella term paganism – and, for them, Stonehenge is still a sacred site of worship. The Solstices have been celebrated here for thousands of years; a practice continued by many people today.
So, what is the Winter Solstice?
Simply put, the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and the longest night. The Earth rotates on a tilted axis, which affects how much sunlight we get throughout the year; the winter solstice, in the Northern Hemisphere, is when the Earth’s axis is tilted away from the sun. In the Southern Hemisphere, this is reversed, meaning that when the winter solstice happens in the Northern Hemisphere, the Summer Solstice happens in the Southern Hemisphere and vice-versa. This usually occurs between December 21-23.
The changing of the seasons has been celebrated for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that this is what monuments like Stonehenge and Newgrange were built for, as their construction precisely aligns with the rising and setting of the sun on the solstices. It’s theorised that the passage of time and changing of the seasons would have been extremely important to the people of the time. For farming and hunting, the coming of winter would have been an extremely difficult time as the days grew shorter and colder. In a practical sense, keeping track of the movements of the sun would have been extremely important and its return, something to celebrate. In fact, excavations at the Durrington Walls near Stonehenge suggest that people held huge feasts over the winter solstice period. The winter solstice was also celebrated in Ancient Rome with the Saturnalia festival, a 7-day festival that was connected to the winter season. It was the liveliest and most popular festival of the year, with all work and business suspended. During the closing days of the festival, celebrants would make presents of candles, wax models or fruit, or waxen statuettes. The celebration was also connected to the Roman New Year on January 1st, during which people would decorate their houses with greenery and lights and give presents to children. Though we have no way of knowing exactly how the solstices were celebrated at Stonehenge, thousands of years ago in pre-Roman times, the occasion is still celebrated there by thousands.
To preserve it, Stonehenge was roped off in 1977 due to the damage that was being caused by the amount of visitors the site attracted each day. Stonehenge still holds a lot of spiritual significance to Druids, pagans, and Wiccans, however, and it is opened to the public on the solstices each year. Access to the stones during this time is free and without restriction.
Today, the Winter Solstice is celebrated as part of the Wheel of the Year – the eight Sabbats celebrated by Neo-Pagans which includes Samhain (Oct 31), Yule (Dec 21-23), Imbolc (Feb 1-2), Ostara (March 20-23), Beltane (May 1), Litha (June 20-22), Lughnasadh (Aug 1), and Mabon (Sep 20-23).
The Wheel of the Year highlights the cyclical nature of time and life and celebrates the changing of the seasons and the natural world. It reminds those that follow it of our connection to the natural world and the inevitability of change. The winter solstice symbolises this cycle of life and death; from here on the days will steadily get longer and brighter, reminding us that the sun will eventually return. This symbolism is still important to the many people who travel to Stonehenge to celebrate it and is a big reason why the preservation of Stonehenge is important. Stonehenge is not just an important part of our history, but important presently as a major site of worship for hundreds of people.
How to Celebrate:
Unfortunately, last year, the solstice celebrations were cancelled and instead moved online to a live stream due to the pandemic. As of writing, there is no official confirmation from English Heritage about celebrations for 2021. Plans are underway for a winter solstice celebration on December 22, but these are subject to public health guidelines and won’t be confirmed until closer to the time.
However, celebrating the winter solstice needn’t be done at Stonehenge and there are many ways to celebrate from home. Burning a Yule Log, for example, or getting up early to watch the sunrise. For the more spiritual, creating an altar space filled with symbols of the winter solstice and things that bring joy and surrounding it with candles (making sure to stay fire-safe, of course) or even wrapping up warm and going for a walk.