4 Spectacular Destinations to
Celebrate the Winter Solstice
From a scientific perspective, the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice (i.e., December 21; i.e., the shortest day of the year) signifies the moment our half of the earth is tilted at its most extreme angle away from the sun. In other words, it’s really dark here in the northern hemisphere.
But from a spiritual point of view, the interpretations across Eastern and Western cultures can inspire a major case of “We must travel!” The winter solstice, after all, signifies a period of transition from darkness to light, from cold to warm (or warmer).
Although the 2018 winter solstice just passed, it got us thinking about next year, and how we’re determined to celebrate it somewhere special. There are plenty of options: In Ireland, the Celtic Druids indulge in all sorts of predawn revelry. Across the world in Japan, it’s a celebration of all things yuzu (including hot bath soaks filled with the tart citrus fruit). The general consensus is the same, though—a change in season is an important, cleansing ritual worth honoring before the earth makes another orbit around the sun.
Sunrise at Newgrange
Boyne Valley, Ireland
Newgrange is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) astronomically oriented structure we know of. Built by Stone Age farmers in the Boyne Valley, it’s thought to have been not only a Neolithic burial place but also as a gathering space, perhaps for worship or maybe just for community. Despite its discovery in the 1600s, the most curious aspect of this huge, earth-covered mound was a secret until the 1960s. Professor Michael J. O’Kelly happened upon what’s been called the “light box” (a hole cut into the stone) above the entrance. Over time, the true magic—and sheer ingenuity of our Stone Age ancestors—has come, quite literally, to light. At sunrise on the annual winter solstice, rays seep through this box and stream down the burial passages and into the main chamber. The rays soak the space in light for exactly seventeen minutes. The effect is haunting and otherworldly. Every year, no more than a handful of people are invited (via lottery) to see it within the structure. Outside the mound, thousands of onlookers (Druids, Wiccans, locals, and tourists) gather to bear witness. To see it for yourself, apply for the lottery now, and explore Dublin while you’re at it. The Westbury Hotel is an Art Deco jewel box and the place to book. It’s less than an hour from Newgrange but still in the midst of the capital’s sartorial playground, with easy access to shopping (Brown Thomas), restaurants (Etto) and cultural institutions (the National Gallery).
“Dongzhi” means “the extreme of winter” in Mandarin. It’s a holiday celebrated across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and has the yin-yang philosophy at its root. The yin is darkness and comes to fruition on the winter solstice, which then makes way for the brightness of the yang. Its essence is food and family. In northern China, eating dumplings to offset the freezing cold originated during the Han dynasty (lamb is thought to be especially effective in warding off the chill). In the south, families gather to prepare glutinous rice flour balls called tang yuan, usually served in a sweet ginger soup. And in Hong Kong, the best tang yuan we know of are made on Kowloon Island at Kai Kai, a tiny dessert shop mostly known to locals. Skip the bottleneck traffic and take a boat across the harbor (trust us, it’s way more efficient) for the best vantage point from which to gasp at Hong Kong’s futuristic skyline.
Solstice at Stonehenge
Wiltshire, United Kingdom
The iconic circle of boulders at Stonehenge are part of several Bronze Age monuments that dot the land in this part of rural Wiltshire. Its purpose is unclear, given that no written records exist from this period. However, the winter solstice was clearly of great importance to the ancient communities who settled here. At dusk on solstice day, the midwinter sun sets exactly between the two upright stones of the trilithon (a trilithon is a megalithic structure of two vertical stones supporting a third, horizontal one, like a bridge). Unlike Newgrange, Stonehenge is oriented to sunset, rather than sunrise. Druids, pagans, and interested onlookers gather before dawn the morning after to celebrate, worship, and dance. Make nearby Salisbury your headquarters if you visit—it’s a beautifully maintained medieval town, and the Lucknam Park Hotel and Spa is the way to go. Acres of manicured English countryside call out for long horseback rides (there are stables on-site), while the cooking school, organic gardens, and Michelin-starred restaurant keep guests very well fed.
As in China, the Japanese solstice (or toji) is rooted in the in the idea of the introspective yin giving way to the brighter yang. While there are several traditions associated with the darkest day of the year—visiting an onsen (hot springs) and eating certain foods—the one that grabbed our attention is the yuzu festival. A yuzu is kind of a wintry lemon. The Japanese believe these citrus fruits are vessels of good luck and packed with healing powers. Throughout the country, a hot bath filled with yuzus (called a yuzuyu) is thought to ward off bad spirits and warm the soul. A second toji tradition is eating itokoni—kabocha squash simmered with adzuki beans. The combination is said to bring luck (and again, ward off evil spirits) before spring comes. While you could go anywhere in Japan to partake in these celebrations, we’re partial to Tokyo—and specifically, Hoshinoya, a beautiful, serene ryokan. Its mineral-rich rooftop onsen is fed by natural springs a mile beneath the city. You’re hundreds of feet above the city here, the rooftop open to the night sky as you stargaze and fall into total relaxation.