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| Earth on Dec 19, 2013

Winter solstice as seen from Stonehenge

At Stonehenge in England on the northern winter solstice, people watch the sunrise and sunset. Learn more and see photos here.

Many travel to Stonehenge in England each year, to be present on the day of the northern winter solstice (in 2013, December 21 at 17:11 UTC). Most visit the site early in the morning, to watch as the sun rises above the stones.

According to the BBC, in 2012 more than 5,000 people visited Stonehenge on the morning of the winter solstice. They said that was five times as many people as had visited the site at dawn on the year before.

EarthSky Facebook friend Buddy Puckhaber of South Carolina took this photo of Stonehenge in the early morning, while visiting.  He said,

EarthSky Facebook friend Buddy Puckhaber of South Carolina took this photo of Stonehenge in the early morning, while visiting. He said, “My wife and I were among the first visitors of the day.” Thank you, Buddy!

Another beautiful shot of Stonehenge from our friend Buddy Puckhaber.  Thank you, Buddy.

Another beautiful shot of Stonehenge from our friend Buddy Puckhaber. Thank you, Buddy.

According to stonehengetours.com, at dawn on the day of the winter solstice, the central Altar stone of Stonehenge aligns with the Slaughter stone, Heel stone and the rising sun to the northeast. The site goes on to say:

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.

Winter solstice sunset at Stonehenge in the mid-1980s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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. Stonehenge is perhaps the most famous of of the ancient astronomical monuments found around the world.

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.

Comet PANSTARRS above the Stonehenge monument in March, 2013.  Image via Simon Banton

Comet PANSTARRS above the Stonehenge monument in March, 2013. Image via Simon Banton

Bottom line: The Stonehenge monument in England is a popular winter (and summer) solstice sunrise gathering place. In 2013, the winter solstice happens on December 21 at 17:11 UTC).

The summer solstice as seen from Stonehenge

How do I translate Universal Time to my time?

Want more? Everything you need to know: December solstice