In December, the approaching winter solstice – the year’s shortest day – signifies the return of warmer, longer days, and has long been celebrated across Britain. Celebrations are steeped in history and magic, and often rooted in pagan traditions from centuries ago. See how modern-day pagans and nature lovers mark the solstice, which this year falls on 21 December, at one of these magical sites.
Join an ancient ritual at Stonehenge
Every year, hundreds gather to welcome in the sunrise on the year’s shortest day at the prehistoric stones of Stonehenge. Modern day celebrations can feel like a party, as pagans and druids dressed in colourful clothes come together to celebrate among the mythical stone circle.
Many believe that Stonehenge was designed and built with the sun in mind, as the stones align majestically for solstice sunrise and sunset. Whatever the reasons behind the famous henge, it’s a fantastic sight to behold at dawn as the sun’s rays beam between the stones.
Visit Stonehenge on a guided tour or explore the many prehistoric sites in the area.
Visit a Christmas tree forest in Scotland
Image credit: © Simon Varwell
Many of the rituals we associate with Christmas in Britain were originally related to the winter solstice, including the tradition of Christmas trees. Pagans used the same evergreen trees we decorate for Christmas today to symbolise eternal life in winter solstice rituals.
Britain is home to many glorious evergreen tree forests but Reelig Glen, near Inverness in Scotland, is perhaps the most special of them all. The forest is home to 4 of Britain’s tallest trees, and the tallest conifer in Europe, which stands at an incredible 217ft (66m) high. The area is full of all types of fir trees, including Norway spruces and ancient conifers, making it an extremely Christmassy place to explore, not least in the winter sun of the solstice.
Watch the sun rise over Glastonbury Tor
Image credit: © Jon Callow
The location of this ancient manmade hill is perfect for watching the sun rise, and many believe it was built for exactly this purpose. During the majestic solstice sunrise at Glastonbury Tor, the sun appears to roll up the hill and perch on the ruins of the 5th-century church that sits atop it before continuing up into the sky above – quite a sight to experience.
Not only is the surrounding area breathtakingly beautiful, it’s rich with magic and folklore – be sure to explore the faerie woods and visit the 7th-century abbey.
See a passage built for the sun in Northern Ireland
Image credit: © D Mull
Calliagh Berra’s House is a tomb in Northern Ireland that is more than 4,000 years old. It’s also on top of a mountain, leading some to believe it was built by ancient astronomers specifically to capture the winter solstice sunset. Between 19-22 December, the tomb is illuminated by the winter sun in a spectacular and rare event.
Each year, walks and talks take place to mark the winter sunset as part of the area’s Winter Solstice Festival. The best way to experience the magic of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is to walk the hills and take in the captivating views – join a guided walk to hear about the ancient history, too. Slieve Gullion mountain is about 1 hour from Belfast.