Many travel each year to Stonehenge in England – perhaps the most famous of the ancient astronomical monuments found around the world – to be present on the day of the northern winter solstice. The 2015 December solstice occurs on Tuesday, December 22 at 4:48 UTC – that’s December 21 at 10:48 p.m. CST for us in North America.
Most who travel to Stonehenge visit the site early in the morning, to watch as the sun rises above the stones. In 2014, according to the BBC, about 1,500 people visited Stonehenge on the morning of the winter solstice. That’s fewer than the BBC reported in 2013 (3,500 visits) or in 2012 (5,000 visits, which is about the maximum the area can hold for winter solstice festivities, due to winter parking concerns).
Winter solstice visits to Stonehenge apparently always bring fewer visitors than at the summer solstice, when parking can be provided in fields around the site. In 2015, the BBC reported 23,000 people turning up for the Stonehenge’s summer solstice celebration.
Stonehenge is carefully aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset (opposed to New Grange, which points to the winter solstice sunrise, and the Goseck circle, which is aligned to both the sunset and sunrise).
It is thought that the winter solstice was actually more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. The winter solstice was a time when most cattle were slaughtered (so they would not have to be fed during the winter) and the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented.
What is special about the winter solstice sunrise and sunset? For the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the sun’s most southerly point on the celestial sphere, the imaginary sphere of stars surrounding Earth. It is sun’s southernmost sunset and thus marks a turning of the year, from decreasing daylight to increasing daylight, for us at northerly latitudes.
This Stonehenge monument – built in 3,000 to 2,000 BC – shows how carefully our ancestors watched the sun. Astronomical observations such as these surely controlled human activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the metering of winter reserves between harvests.
When Stonehenge was first opened to the public it was possible to walk among the stones – even climb on them.
The stones were roped off in 1977 as a result of serious erosion. Today, visitors to the monument are not permitted to touch the stones, but, if you go, you will be able to walk around the monument from a short distance away.
Visitors can also make special bookings to access the stones throughout the year.
Bottom line: The Stonehenge monument in England is a popular winter (and summer) solstice sunrise gathering place. The 2015 December solstice occurs on Tuesday, December 22 at 4:48 UTC – that’s December 21 at 10:48 p.m. CST.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.