Christmas may be only a few days away, but before it occurs, much of the world is celebrating another important occasion.
December marks the onset of the winter solstice, which sees both the longest night of the year and the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere.
Celebrated for millennia by cultures around the world, this year it takes place on Thursday.
Long seen as an important date, especially for ancient people whose survival relied upon seasonal cycles, the celebration is also often viewed as a time for cleansing and renewal.
One of the most prominent places for winter solstice celebrations is at Stonehenge, the UK’s mysterious stone circle at Salisbury Plain in England's Wiltshire.
Every year, people gather for a sunrise ceremony to mark the new day. It’s also live-streamed for viewers to witness from around the world, so here's how to join in.
How to watch winter solstice live?
The UK's most famous site for solstice celebrations welcomes both in-person visitors and online viewers.
If you’re going to the ancient site, access is open from 7.45am — or from whenever there's enough light to safely enter the site — until 10am. It's free for all, but parking is chargeable. Post sunrise, visitors need to vacate car parks by 11am. Revellers should also wrap up warm — rain and temperatures of about 7°C are forecast.
For viewers around the world, it's possible to watch the winter solstice at Stonehenge unfold online. The society English Heritage is streaming the celebrations on its YouTube channel on Thursday, with footage expected to commence at 7am (UK time).
What happens at winter solstice?
Every year, solstice marks the exact point when the Earth’s axis reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun is at its lowest point in the sky, which leads to the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
It's not a worldwide phenomenon, as the opposite is true in the Southern Hemisphere.
Often called the December solstice in places such as New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, the occasion marks the longest day of the year and the official beginning of summer.
Why is solstice celebrated at Stonehenge?
Stonehenge is an important place for solstice celebrations as the monolithic stones were purposefully built to align with the Sun on both solstices.
In summer, the Sun rises behind the Heel Stone in the north-east part of the horizon with the first rays shining into the heart of Stonehenge.
On the winter solstice, the Sun sets to the south-west of the stone circle. The tallest trilithon at the monument is no longer standing, but if it were, the Sun would have set between the narrow gap of these uprights during the winter solstice.
What happens after winter solstice in the UAE?
After the winter solstice, which is the shortest day for many countries, daylight hours will slowly being to increase. In the UK on Thursday, there will only be seven hours and 50 minutes of daylight — around nine hours less daylight than it typically sees during the summer solstice in June.
Sunset is scheduled for just before 4pm on Thursday in the UK. This will also begin to gradually increase post solstice.
The further from the North Pole countries are, the less noticeable the difference is, so in the UAE, the changes are not as obvious. Daylight hours have reduced only marginally for solstice, with 10 hours of sunshine predicted on Thursday and sunset at around 5.40pm.