It's impossible to travel the UK without appreciating the incredible heritage of the land that surrounds us. And at this time of year, it's important to remember that that heritage has helped to shape Christmas as we know it.
The Winter Solstice, when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky, is on December 21st in the Northern Hemisphere and is probably the reason why Christmas is celebrated at this time of the year. As with many of our celebrations, the Christian belief has merged with the Pagan and there is evidence of the importance of midwinter up and down the country (if you know where to look).
Not only that, we've also carried forward many Pagan traditions. Winter Solstice, Yule, Christmas or whatever you celebrate in December is a time for feasting, drinking and celebrating. Before Christianity, it was a time to mark the turning of the sun and the days getting longer. It also made perfect sense to slaughter animals at this time of year to avoid having to feed them over Winter when supplies were scarce...and also to eat them to fatten up for the cold, lean months ahead.
No-one really knows for sure why Neolithic stone henges were built and there's no proof but circumstantial evidence that the sun and moon's orbits are relevant, but keep reading to find out the top theories behind them. What we do know is that there is a lot more domestic history surrounding them than was originally thought.
So, without further ado, here are our top Neolithic locations for witnessing the Winter Solstice and learning a bit more about the traditions that surround this ancient holiday.
- The Rural Traveol Guide
Yes, it's the obvious one but as with the Summer Solstice in June, Stonehenge is the largest gathering of 21st Century celebrants in the country, so if you're interested in witnessing today's Druids and their rituals, it's worth a visit.
The World Heritage Site has a 4,500-year history and they are only just starting to unravel the mystery of how the stones got to their location (although at The Rural Travel Guide we kind of wish they wouldn't - we like the mystery of the site).
It's also thought that the Winter Solstice is much more relevant to the henge than the Summer equivalent due to the positioning of the stones. Therefore, Midwinter is one of the only days of the year that you can actually approach the stones. English Heritage, which manages the site, puts on a special event at sunrise on 22 December and entry is free.
It goes without saying though that if you do attend, please be respectful of the stones and the people who are there to celebrate.
Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria
Castlerigg Stone Circle
- The Rural Travel Guide
About a mile outside Keswick and close to the shores of Derwentwater is Castlerigg Stone Circle, a Neolithic henge that was raised about 5,000 years ago.
Due to the long history of the site, it's not known exactly why it's there but it was certainly an important place for our ancestors, although whether it was religious or not remains to be seen.
Unlike Stonehenge, it's not been greatly excavated so the whys and wherefores are unknown, but it's also an incredible place to visit for the Winter Solstice.
Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and generally much quieter than Stonehenge, it's ideal for visitors who want to celebrate the Solstice in their own way, without the crowds.
Callanish Stone Circle, Outer Hebrides
We're going to assume that if you're heading to the Outer Hebrides for the Winter Solstice, you're making a holiday of it.
Callanish Stone Circle on the Isle of Lewis is arguably one of Britain's most iconic stone circles, (especially if you look for inspiration on Instagram). Towering above visitors, the stones are just one of several Neolithic sites on the island, which lies off the west coast of Scotland.
And it's a particularly important stone circle if you're visiting for the solstice because it's one of only two in the county that, according to archaeologists, are proven to have been built to coincide with the orbits of the sun and moon. So, you really can stand in the footsteps of our ancestors when you're there in December.
Callanish Stone Circle
- by Amritagrace on Pixabay
The Outer Hebrides is cold at this time of year though, so we'd definitely recommend checking into somewhere like Whitefalls Spa Lodges, so you can relax and warm up after a day of heritage sight-seeing.