As seen from the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice – typically around December 21 to 23 – is the day on which the sun’s path stops moving southward in the sky. The winter solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year. for us in the northern hemisphere, it’s the day on which the days stop growing shorter and will soon begin to lengthen again. for this reason, in festivals and celebrations across this hemisphere of Earth, the winter solstice is linked to the idea of rebirth.
At Stonehenge in England on this day, people watch as the sun sets in the midst of three great stones – known as the Trilithon – consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third, horizontal stone across the top.
In the case of Stonehenge, this great Trilithon faces outwards from the center of the monument, with its smooth flat face turned toward the midwinter sun. In fact, the primary axes of Stonehenge seems to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunset.
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.
Stonehenge is tied to the summer solstice, too. If you stood inside the Stonehenge monument, facing north-east through the entrance towards a rough hewn stone outside the circle – known as the Heel Stone – you would see the sun rise above the Heel Stone at the summer solstice, as illustrated in the image above.
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.