It’s easy to miss, but there’s an occasion on the horizon far more ancient than Christmas. Winter solstice in the northern hemisphere falls on or near December 21st, when the North Pole tilts furthest from the sun resulting in the fewest hours of daylight. Once a time when cattle were slaughtered; wine was bottled; and the longer days were ushered in with gusto, today mid-winter slips by mostly unnoticed.
Yet the darkest point of the year provides a wondrous opportunity for reflection, renewal, and noticing the seasons. In Britain (where I live) several prehistoric sites are aligned to the event and offer mystical — if rather chilly — ways to mark the date. And across the globe, there are some pretty off-the-wall festivities planned.
Here are my top 10 spots to celebrate December solstice; five in Britain and Ireland, five in further-flung destinations:
1. Newgrange tomb, near Drogheda, County Meath, Ireland
This Neolithic monument is fully illuminated at sunrise for the few days around solstice, bathing the 19-metre passage and chamber in orange light. The spectacle lasts just 17 minutes, but is so popular there’s a free annual lottery to see it; this year there were over 30,000 applications for 60 places. Nearby Dowth monument is less touristy, and the site of the hippietastic Winter Solstice Experience, which offers sweat lodges; fire rituals; Celtic chanting; and a pre-dawn procession to Newgrange.
2. Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well, Glastonbury, Somerset
Although many choose to climb the mythical tor, a better bet is to view the solstice sunrise from nearby Windmill Hill, where it can be seen rolling along the slope of Glastonbury Tor from base to top. Follow this with meditation, chat, and singing around the fire — plus spicy hot drinks — at nearby Chalice Well, an ancient well in landscaped peace gardens. A shop, shelter, and upper room provide refuge if it rains.
3. Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire
While the majority of folk — amongst them pagans, Druids, and Wiccans — gather to witness dawn at Stonehenge (whose exact purpose remains a mystery), the stones are in fact aligned to sunset rather than sunrise on December 21st. Stonehenge Tours offers transport in the small hours from Bath or London; entry and guided tour of the site; the sunrise itself (fingers crossed); and a bonus whirlwind tour of cathedral city Salisbury — presumably to alleviate the disappointment of a potential no-show from our nearest star?
4. Burning the Clocks parade, Brighton, East Sussex
This big but enchanting annual procession of clock-themed willow and paper lanterns through the city to the beach, where they are burnt on a bonfire and followed by fireworks, was invented 23 years ago as an alternative way to mark mid-winter. 2016’s event has an added twist: it will be sponsored by Brighton funeral company Arka, who have commissioned 25 ‘In Memory’ lanterns for 25 locals bereaved within the past year to hold aloft, commemorating their loved ones.
5. Fiesta de Santo Tomas, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Following a week of dances, parades, and fireworks in this mountain town, a group of Polo Voladores (pole flyers) climb a 30-metre pole before launching themselves off attached only by swirling, rapidly unravelling ropes, while one man remains at the top playing a flute. The ritual, a kind of musical bungee jumping, is thought to beseech the Mayan gods to return the sun.
Unlike anything you’ve seen before, Chaomos is celebrated by the pre-Islamic Kalash tribe in the remote north-western corner of Pakistan. The two-week festival leading up to solstice involves purification rituals, rites of passage, bonfires, torchlit parades through the mountain valleys, singing and dancing. Goats are sacrificed; god-shaped breads are made; people wear bright colours and heavy headdresses jewelled with cowrie shells; and young boys conga through the villages impersonating their ancestors.
7. Yalda, Shiraz/Nationwide, Iran
An ancient Persian festival with roots in Zoroastrianism, today it’s still keenly celebrated across Iran to mark the victory of light over darkness. Iranians stay up all night; eat watermelon and pomegranate; star-gaze; and recite verses by 14th-century poet Hafez. Visit his tomb in Shiraz on Yalda night to witness young Iranians gathering for a lively yet spiritual homage.
8. Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt
It’s a little pricier than a coach trip to Stonehenge, but at the world’s second-largest temple (trumped only by Angkor Wat in Cambodia) you’re more or less guaranteed a sunrise show. At solstice dawn, the shimmering gold disk of the sun ascends between and above the walls of this ancient monument, built over 3000 years ago as a shrine to the sun god Amun-Ra.
9. Mnajdra Temples, Qrendi, Malta
This 5000-year-old megalithic temple complex on Malta’s southern coast is thought to have been built as an astronomical observatory and a giant, 3-D solar calendar. It works like a camera obscura, with the winter solstice sunrise illuminating the edges of the huge stones on either side of the lower-temple doorway. Fans include music legend Patti Smith, who performed her poetry amongst Mnajdra’s megaliths in 2014.
10. Maeshowe, Mainland, Orkney, Scotland
If you’re not an early riser or can’t make the 21st, Maeshowe is ideal; the solstice sunset that directly and dramatically lights up this strategically positioned, chambered cairn is visible for 22 days before and after the solstice. Built 5000 years ago, it inspired 12th-century Vikings who broke in and left carvings of a dragon, serpent, and walrus, as well as poet George Mackay Brown who mused, ‘at this season the sun is a pale wick between two gulfs of darkness. Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe’.