Where to Experience the Winter Solstice

Estimated reading time 5 min

Are you ready to celebrate the 2020 winter solstice in style? What exactly is the winter solstice? The word “solstice” derives from the Latin “solstitium,” meaning “sun stands still.” In the winter, this astronomical wonder marks the shortest day of the year, after which the sun returns and the days begin to lengthen. Cultures all across the world celebrate this occasion as the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. This December 21st, join the global celebration with a trip to one of these festive destinations. The sun may stand still this winter solstice, but that doesn’t mean you have to!

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury, England

Those in search of a spiritual winter solstice experience need look no further than this man-made mound in southern England. Many believe that the hill, a medieval Christian pilgrimage site, was built in celebration of the sun. Every year on the winter solstice, a person standing atop nearby Windmill Hill can watch the sun appear to roll up from the base of Glastonbury Tor to the ruins of St. Michael’s Tower at the top of the mound.

Newgrange Passage Tomb

County Meath, Ireland

This even begins at sunrise, as most winter solstice happenings do. Provided there’s no cloud cover, a shaft of light pierces through the opening above the entryway to this ancient tomb and illuminates the passage and inner chamber for approximately 17 minutes. To call this a popular spectacle would be an understatement. The event has garnered such acclaim with locals and visitors alike that there is now a free annual lottery for those hoping to participate. Of around 30,000 applicants, only 60 are chosen to attend each morning from December 18th through the 23rd.

Burning the Clocks Festival

Brighton, England

When the sun goes down on the winter solstice in Brighton, the fun begins. Carrying homemade lanterns made of wicker and tissue paper (many of which resemble clocks), paraders march through town toward a bonfire at the edge of the water. Here they toss their lanterns into the crackling flames to mark the end of the year. A fireworks show accompanies the procession.

Mnajdra Temples

Qrendi, Malta

This 5,000-year-old megalithic temple complex on southern coast of Malta turns to gold in the winter solstice sunlight. (Not literally, of course, although that would truly be something.) At sunrise, the light illuminates the stones on either side of the south temple’s doorway, making the entrance appear as though it is framed by boulders of gold. Thought to have been built as an astronomical observatory and solar calendar, this UNESCO-listed temple complex attracts visitors from around the world during the winter and summer solstices.

St. Lucia’s Day

Sweden

Held in honor of Christian martyr St. Lucia of Syracuse, a Christian martyr, this festival of lights takes place every year near the solstice. Its roots date back to early Norse solstice traditions where fires were lit to ward off evil spirits during the longest night of the year. The eldest daughter in each household rises early to prepare coffee and sweet bread for her family. She delivers the morning treats while dressed in a white robe with a red sash and wearing a wreath adorned with candles. Throughout the country, each town selects one young woman to play the part of St. Lucia in the annual St. Lucia Day procession.

Dongzhi Festival

China

After a season of limited daylight, the Dongzhi Festival is a time for families across China to rejoice in the positive energy that comes with the return of the sun. The festival is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, where the yin of cold and darkness gradually succumbs to the yang of warmth and light following the winter solstice. Families gather together and make tang yuan (rice balls) and dumplings to warm and nourish their bodies and minds for the coming year.

Toji

Japan

If you’re heading to Japan for the winter solstice, you can fortify your body and soul with a therapeutic bath! The Japanese celebrate the coming year by soaking in hot baths (called yuzu-yu) with whole yuzu fruits bobbing on the surface like edible tub toys. This fruit, which is the size and color of a small lemon, is known for its cleansing, healing properties; bathing with them is said ward off evil spirits (and the common cold). If you want to go all-out on your stay, order a meal of kabocha squash (considered good luck) and adzuki beans, whose red color symbolizes the coming sun.

Inti Raymi

Cusco, Peru

June marks the start of winter in the southern hemisphere. Because of this, the traditional Incan ceremony is the perfect addition to your summer travel plans. Held on the winter solstice (June 20th of 2020), Inti Raymi is a celebration of the sun god (Inti). Participants don traditional Incan tunics and dance amidst the ruins of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire. The festivities take place at several venues, but your best bet is the grandstand seating in the Fortress of Saqsayhuman (or for free in the surrounding hills).

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