The shortest day of the year is full of possibilities. What’s known as the winter solstice (or the first day of winter) is a phenomenon that happens due to the Earth’s tilted axis, and cultures all over the world have turned the longest night of the year into something worth celebrating. For many, this means a family feast—whether that’s Yalda in Iran, Dongzhi in China, or Dongji in Korea. It’s also a day to join in a light-filled festival or ponder an ancient mystery at a ruin.
When is the winter solstice? If you’re planning a vacation around the winter solstice 2021, then Tuesday, December 21 is the date to remember for the Northern Hemisphere. Here are a few very special places worldwide to see the sun rise or set.
Being at Stonehenge at sunset during the shortest day of the year is the ultimate addition to a travel bucket list. No one knows exactly why this ancient stone circle in Wiltshire, England was originally constructed, but the stones chart the sun’s movements, and Stonehenge perfectly frames the midwinter sunset at the winter solstice. If you can’t make it to this iconic World Heritage Site in person, there’s a free Winter Solstice livestream that makes it feel like you are there.
One of three ancient sites in Ireland’s Brú na Bóinne valley, Newgrange’s secrets reveal itself once a year on the winter solstice. According to Ireland’s tourism website, this curious mound-shaped passage tomb includes an opening that allows sun to shine in during the winter solstice and illuminate the inner chamber. It’s incredibly precise for something created even before Stonehenge.
The interior of the Newgrange monument is currently closed due to pandemic restrictions. But like Stonehenge, there’s a livestream at the site of Newgrange’s tomb during the winter solstice. Prior to COVID, there was a lottery to select lucky visitors to see Newgrange lit up in person.
The movement of the sun was of utmost importance to the Maya civilization. At the ancient Uaxactún site in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, a pyramid was constructed along with three temples, each designed to observe the winter solstice, summer solstice, and the equinox. If you happen to be at the Uaxactún ruins on December 21, you would see that half of the pyramid would be shrouded in light and the other half in darkness.
Another Mayan ruin (and UNESCO World Heritage site) with winter solstice significance is in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The ruins at Chichen Itza are known for a spectacular light show during the equinox. But according to anthropology magazine Sapiens, on December 21, the sun rises right above the El Castillo pyramid and then in the afternoon, a shadow divides the pyramid in half.
On the solstice in England’s seaside city Brighton, the dark winter night is lit up by glowing, handmade paper lanterns as 2,000 people take part in a luminous winter parade winding through the seaside city to the beach. All those lanterns (each representing the makers’ “hopes and dreams” as community arts organizer Same Sky puts it) are then tossed on the beach bonfire. The quirky annual procession is called Burning the Clocks, and it began in 2004 as a new, non-commercial Christmas tradition. Be among the crowd of 20,000 spectators who watch the parade and then gather for the bonfire and a festive fireworks display.
Traditional Cornish midwinter customs live on with the Montol Festival in historic Penzance, a six-day arts event timed to the winter solstice. Caroling, plays, and late-night shopping are all part of fun until the “light and darkness”-themed parade on December 21. This modern-day take on ancient traditions began in 2007 and includes fire displays, torch lightings, and a late night procession with dancing. Revelers dress up in costumes covered in ornate ribbons, lace veils, or animal masks.
For more than two decades, Vancouverites have celebrated the solstice with a lantern festival. Glowing lanterns lit with beeswax candles are set up into a “Labyrinth of Light” formation, and there’s singing and parades throughout the city. This festival is from the Secret Lantern Society, and due to the pandemic, festivities last year included a livestream with music and poetry.
The Nordic countries have a traditional way of brightening up the dark December months with St. Lucia celebrations. St. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure known as a bearer of light, according to Sweden’s tourism site. To celebrate, children dress in all white gowns and a little girl chosen to play Lucia wears a crown of candles (battery-operated nowadays for safety). This holiday is celebrated on Dec. 13, which was once the solstice in ancient calendars. There’s a particularly spirited St. Lucia tradition in Finland, where a crowd of 30,000 typically attends a parade and market in the city center after St. Lucia is crowned at Helsinki Cathedral.
Try to time your visit to see Luxor’s ancient tombs and temples with the winter solstice. Each year, the solstice sunrise aligns with the entryway of the Karnak temple, according to Smithsonian Magazine. The sunrays make their way to the temple’s sanctuary of Amun Ra’a and to Hatshepsut’s ancient temple, Egypt Today notes, which is fitting since ancient Egyptians worshipped a solar deity. Each year, archaeologists and tourists alike make a visit on the winter solstice, but you can check it out online if you can’t make it to Luxor.
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