Solstice refers to the sun’s distance from the equator, and it happens twice a year. In the winter solstice, the sun reaches its most southern latitude and appears at its lowest in the sky at noon.
In the summer solstice, it reaches its most northern latitude and appears at its highest in the sky at noon.
Apart from helping determine the planting seasons and mating of animals, the solstices have inspired various festivals, celebrations and monuments. Stonehenge, for example, was aligned to point to the winter solstice sunset.
As far back as Neolithic times, the winter solstice was a time of reflection; the longest and darkest night which would give way to a new cycle of increasing light and rebirth. In fact, the position of the sun through the year (and not the various calendars) was originally the key determinant of the main yearly celebrations of ancient people. For instance, the original New Year’s celebration used to take place around the spring equinox in March, when the sun crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere and days grew noticeably longer.
Although few people rely on the sun’s position for crop planting these days, we still celebrate these astronomical events as ways of retaining a mostly lost connection to the earth and its cycles of life. Here are the best places to visit to hail the shortest or longest day of the year.
NEW YORK, USA DECEMBER 17-18, 2015
In line with primeval solstice rituals, New Yorkers invite the sun to stay around a little longer when the nights become too long to bear. And they do so in style, with a concert in the largest cathedral on Earth — that of Saint John the Divine.
Although the world’s population no longer fears the sun’s complete disappearance when the daylight hours start to dwindle, the winter solstice is still seen as a turning point, with the promise of warmer weather on the way.
SAN FRANCISCO, USA DECEMBER 20, 2015
If you have a penchant for witchcraft, you can engage in a more serious spiritual experience at the Bay Area Reclaiming event, held annually on the eve of the winter solstice.
The concept behind the ritual is honoring darkness before “turning the wheel of the year back towards the light,” and post-ritual activities include drumming and other musical performances on the beach.
When the sun re-emerges after its longest absence of the year, the celebration continues with song and dance to welcome its return.
SEATTLE, USA DECEMBER 21, 2015
Each year, the Fremont Arts Council puts on a Winter Feast to celebrate the solstice and bring in a new year. While the event seeks to incorporate solstice traditions and the sharing of history, essentially it’s a giant party.
The feast itself takes place in an old warehouse that’s temporarily adorned with art installations and colored lighting, and guests come in costume and groove along to live music and DJ beats.
STONEHENGE, ENGLAND DECEMBER 22, 2015
In December, a crowd of pagans and tourists brave the British cold to spread a message of hope as the sun rises over Stonehenge. Notably, this is one of only two mornings of the year (along with the summer solstice) that visitors have unrestricted access to the stones, which are usually cordoned off.
The setting of the sun is also considered a momentous occasion, as the main axis of the monument is believed to purposefully align to the winter solstice sunset.
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA MAY 27 – AUGUST 2, 2016
The White Nights Festival stretches over the brightest nights of the year during Russia’s midsummer. As part of the festival, Saint Petersburg offers ballet, opera and traditional Russian dance performances, with a lineup of international acts hitting the stage in Palace Square.
Festivities conclude with Russia’s largest public event, Scarlet Sails, which includes fireworks and a ship lit with red sails as it floats down the Neva River.
KATOOMBA, AUSTRALIA JUNE 18, 2016
In Australia’s Blue Mountains, 50 miles west of Sydney, the town of Katoomba holds an annual Winter Magic Festival around the winter solstice. (Remember, for anyone living in the southern hemisphere, winter occurs in June.) Streets are closed off to traffic to accommodate the free entertainment, including musical and dance performances, art exhibitions and market stalls. It’s also the perfect opportunity to embrace your inner child, with everyone encouraged to dress in their best winter magic-inspired costume.
DELHI, INDIA JUNE 21, 2016
In 2014, June 21 was declared the International Day of Yoga by the United Nations General Assembly. India’s prime minister lobbied to have the day celebrated on the northern hemisphere’s longest day of the year due to its widespread spiritual and cultural significance.
This year, to mark the International Day of Yoga’s first official year of celebration, 35,000 people in Delhi took part in the largest single yoga session in the world.
With yoga deemed a practice of peace in India, Delhi is set to maintain its stead as a frontrunner in World Yoga Day celebrations over coming years. For yoga enthusiasts, it’s a class you have to try.
ALESUND, NORWAY JUNE 24, 2016
Norwegians in the picturesque town of Alesund welcome the summer with a bonfire — a massive bonfire. The celebration, called Slinningsbålet, honors the birth of John the Baptist and involves the creation of a wooden tower more than 100 feet high that crumbles into the ocean after being set ablaze.
While awaiting the dramatic collapse, spare a thought for the poor guy doing a quick downward scramble after lighting the fuse at the top.
CAMPINA GRANDE, BRAZIL JUNE 2016
Festa Junina, or the June Festival, is a winter event that commemorates Saints Peter, John and Anthony, and celebrates the beginning of the Brazilian harvest.
In Brazil, festivities aren’t limited to the day of the solstice, with some celebrations lasting for weeks as a multi-faceted honor of marital union, rain and life in general.
Campina Grande in the country’s northeast attracts millions of visitors to its June Festival and celebrates with bonfires, fireworks and traditional food and dance.
CREATE YOUR OWN SOLSTICE RITUAL
If it’s too much to brave the weather for this year’s winter solstice celebrations, you can create your own ritual at home, in line with tradition, as the cold and dark provides the perfect opportunity for reflection and renewal.
Sit in silence, dance to music, talk over a meal with friends — it’s up to you, but whatever you choose to do, be thankful for the year that’s passed, consciously let go of any negative energy, and then turn your attention to the year ahead. The daylight hours are only going to get longer, so use this as your motivation to start afresh.