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Though the purpose of the enigmatic English structure Stonehenge remains unknown, this 5,000-year-old monument has a famously special relationship with the solstices. On the summer solstice, the complex’s Heel Stone, which stands outside Stonehenge’s main circle, lines up with the rising sun.
In Egypt, the Great Pyramids at Giza appear to be aligned with the sun as well. When viewed from the Sphinx, the sun sets between the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre during the summer solstice—though it remains unclear precisely how the ancient Egyptians oriented it this way.
Many cultures have found unique ways to mark the summer solstice. The traditional Scandinavian holiday of Midsummer welcomes it with maypole dancing, drinking, and romance. During the Slavic holiday of Ivan Kupala, people wear floral wreaths and dance around bonfires, while some plucky souls jump over the fires as a way of ensuring good luck and health. In a more modern tradition, the people of Fairbanks, Alaska, swing in the summer solstice with a nighttime baseball game to celebrate the fact that they can get up to 22.5 hours of daylight in the summer. The Midnight Sun Game has been played 115 times now since 1906.
The winter solstice has had its share of celebrations, too. On June 24, in time with the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, the Inca Empire celebrated Inti Raymi, a festival that honored the Inca religion’s powerful sun god Inti and marked the Inca new year. The festival is still celebrated throughout the Andes, and since 1944, a reconstruction of Inti Raymi has been staged in Cusco, Peru, less than two miles from its Inca Empire home. Ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with Saturnalia, a seven-day festival that involved giving presents, decorating houses with plants, and lighting candles. And Iranians celebrate Yalda in December. The festival—a mainstay since Zoroastrianism was Iran’s dominant religion—traditionally honors the birth of Mithra, the ancient Persian goddess of light.
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