The spectacle lasts just 17 minutes at the neolithic Newgrange monument in County Meath, but demand is so high an annual lottery is held and participants come from across the world
Compared to the vast crowds of druids and pagans expected to gather at Stonehenge on Saturday 21 December to celebrate the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice event at Newgrange tomb in County Meath, Ireland is a rather exclusive affair. Just 120 people get the privilege of standing inside the monument to witness the remarkable illumination that occurs when a beam of sunlight shoots down into the narrow corridor that leads into the chamber, flooding the entire 19-metre stone passage in a warm orange light.
The people who built this neolithic structure over 5,000 years ago were evidently keen timekeepers. Above the entrance to the Newgrange tomb, which takes the form of a large grass-covered mound, is a small “roof box” that is aligned to the rising sun, a piece of design believed to have functioned in the past as an indicator of the new year. And for six days each year, around the winter solstice, the effect is at its peak.
To manage the incredible demand from those hoping to experience this enchanting spectacle, the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre runs a lottery to decide on the lucky few who will be allowed inside. And you do have to be lucky; this year 29,503 people applied for 50 places. Each winner is allowed to bring a guest, with 20 people taken inside each morning for the six days of winter solstice sun. People have travelled from all over the world to experience the event, which lasts just 17 minutes.
Archaeology teacher Michelle Thick “had to beg for the day off work” after she won a golden ticket for last year’s solstice. “Being in the chamber was really magical and being stood in the tomb in silence waiting for the moment the light breaks down the chamber floor was extremely tense,” she says. “The light comes very gradually at first and then seeps across the floor until it lights up the back of the tomb. Obviously we don’t know exactly what people were thinking 5,000 years ago, but the whole experience for me was thrilling because it would have been something very special even back then.”
Tour guide Michael Fox was able to experience being inside the chamber in 2010 after snowy weather meant some of the lottery winners had to pull out. “It was one of those rare experiences of heightened spiritual awareness,” he says. “I was on a high for days after the experience.”
Of course, as with any events that are dependent on the weather, not everyone strikes lucky with the sunshine. According to Clare Tuffy, manager of Brú na Bóinne visitor centre, already this year there have been lottery winners from Russia and America who have had to settle for “waiting around in an old Irish chamber while it rains”.
As for those who don’t win the Newgrange lottery, visitors are more than welcome to join in the winter solstice festivities by gathering outside the monument. On some days this could be as few as six people, but on the day of the solstice itself there can be quite a crowd, with some people jumping around excitedly and drumming. “Last year nearly 1000 people came on the 21st,” says Tuffy. “But that day last year was when the world was supposed to end, if you remember… “
• Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, Donore, Co Meath, Ireland, +353 41 9880 303, newgrange.com. Open daily, year round, except for 24-27 December. Entrance to visitors’ centre and Newgrange tomb: €6 adults, €5 seniors, €3 children and students.
Other unusual Winter Solstice events around the world
The Great Serpent Mound
If you’ve ever seen the film Tremors, then this 400-metre long, three-foot high mound in the shape of a snake, should bring back some memories. The prehistoric effigy in Ohio takes the form of a winding stretch of raised ground, with an open mouth at one end and a coiled tail at the other. Believed to have been built 800BC and AD400 by Native Americans, the mound is lit by hundreds of candles during the winter solstice in a ceremony named the “Lighting of the Serpent”.
• Peebles, Ohio, serpentmound.org
Church of St Sulpice
As mentioned in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, this 17th-century Parisian church features a meridian line that runs through the building in the form of a thin brass strip. A small gap in a window allows a ray of light to shine through into the church, and during the winter solstice, at midday, the beam of light illuminates a brass line on the obelisk at the far end of the church. And then … the code is revealed!
• Place Saint-Sulpice, 6e, Paris. Entrance: free
Located on the southern coast of Malta, this megalithic temple complex is another spot that aligns perfectly with the winter solstice. As the first rays of sun appear, the edge of one of the megaliths is illuminated. Although archeologists are uncertain whether this was intentional or not, it highlights the relationship the temples were meant to have with celestial bodies.
• Triq Haġar Qim, Qrendi +356 21 424 231, heritagemalta.org