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24 December 2010
Winter solstice celebrations at Stonehenge and Newgrange

Snow and ice failed to keep people away from Stonehenge as they gathered to see the sun rise on the winter solstice. More than 2,000 people came together at the stones, which were surrounded by a thick blanket of snow. The winter morning mist obscured the actual sunrise - which took place at 8:09 AM on Wednesday - but an eclectic mix of people celebrated the ancient festival.
     Among the Druids, hippies and sun worshippers were those just curious to experience the spiritual event at the site, on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire (England). As well as the traditional Druid and Pagan ceremonies, a spontaneous snowball fight erupted as people enjoyed the cold weather.
     The same morning, a select group of people made their way through a dark, narrow passage and gathered in a small cross-shaped chamber at Newgrange in Co Meath (Ireland), to celebrate the winter solstice.
     At over 5,000 years old Newgrange is the older cousin of Stonehenge and is unique because the builders aligned it with the rising sun. Just after sunrise, at 08:58 GMT, on the shortest day of the year, the inner chamber is designed to flood with sunlight, which enters through a 25cm (9.9ins) high 'roof box' above the passage entrance. "We have to wait four minutes after sunrise to experience the light entering the chamber because the earth's angle has changed since it was constructed 5,000 years ago. The light remains in the chamber for 17 minutes before retreating," says Clare Tuffy, the visitor centre's manager who has worked at Newgrange since the early 1980s. Unfortunately this year heavy snow clouds prevented the sun from entering through the roof box.
     Demand to attend the midwinter solstice is high and since 2000 it has been regulated by a lottery system. This year, more than 25,000 people applied but only a handful were selected to attend on 21 December and the days around the solstice. The lucky winners included people from Ireland, the US, England, Scotland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Danielle LaCava from Pittsburgh in the US was one of the lucky lottery winners and she travelled to Newgrange with her brother Chris. "There was a lot of anticipation building up for what you hoped was going to happen. Even though we didn't see the sun it was still nice to be there."
     The solstice phenomenon at Newgrange was discovered by archaeologist, Professor Michael J O'Kelly on 21 December 1967 during research on the site. "He found the roof box when uncovering the roof chamber but wondered about its purpose," says his daughter Helen Watanabe O'Kelly. "My mother, who worked closely with him, suggested that it might be connected with the winter solstice. And that was how he discovered it in 1967."
     Ms O'Kelly recalls how she experienced it with him the following year. "There were just the two of us. It was cold and dark - no razzmatazz, like you have now. I still remember sitting in the cold and we just waited. Suddenly this shaft of light came into the chamber and hit the back wall. I remember being quietly moved - it was like someone was speaking to you from thousands of years before. I still see it like a picture before my inner eye - it was a golden light."
     Since the discovery of the winter solstice alignment, Newgrange has been developed as a major tourist attraction and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Edited from BBC News (21 December 2010), The Press Association (23 December 2010)

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