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22 December 2006
Solstice celebrations at megalithic sites

Twenty sun worshippers braved the cold to mark the winter solstice at Avebury (Wilthsire, England). Druid keeper of the stones Terry Dobney led a ceremony marking the important day on the pagan calendar. While fog hid the sun, the group formed a circle within the stones.
     Further south, confusion reigned at Stonehenge as English Heritage told a crowd assembled there that the solstice was not officially on until today. About 60 people turned up to the circle in south Wiltshire, cloaked in frost and fog, only to be told it was the wrong day. Some had turned up in flowing robes while others were wearing lovingly-crafted winter solstice wreaths decorated with berries and ivy. After negotiating with site managers English Heritage, the crowd performed traditional solstice activities before leaving peacefully.
     The Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. An English Heritage spokeswoman said most people assumed that because the summer solstice was on the 21st day of June that its winter counterpart occurred on the same date in December. Many people think it always falls on December 21. However, the solstice varies and the time when it ought to be celebrated is open to different interpretations. The astronomical moment of the solstice was actually at 22 minutes past midnight on 22 December - and so English Heritage and many pagans believed the solstice celebration ought to have been celebrated at sunrise that morning. They had asked celebrants to arrive at 7.45am on the 22nd.
     The winter solstice tends to be more muted than its summer equivalent anyway. Almost 20,000 people showed up this summer at Stonehenge whereas last year 1,500 came to the winter version.
     The same day, for 17 magical minutes starting at 8.58am, the inner chamber of the ancient tomb at Newgrange, Co Meath (Ireland), was illuminated on the shortest day of the year. Inside, a small group of 18 officials, academics, scientists,dignitaries and members of the public watched enthralled on a cloudless morning as the rising sun's rays crept along the 19-metre long passage way before bursting brightly into the cavelike centre.
     Up to 50,000 people applied to be included in the occasion but only a lucky few had their names drawn for the privilege by local schoolchildren. A further 80 won places in the chamber over two days, each side of yesterday's event, giving them a good insight into the annual experience.

Sources: BBC News, Breaking News (21 December 2006), The Guardian, Irish Independent, Swindon Advertiser (22 December 2006)

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