Night at the Plaza: The Winter Solstice in Belize

Experience the winter solstice in Belize for a deep connection to the ancient Maya history. The winter solstice occurs when the Earth’s axial tilt reaches its farthest point from the sun, making the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The solstice usually takes place every year around December 21st or 22nd.

The ancient Maya were skilled astronomers and mathematicians, closely observing celestial bodies to create their elaborate calendar systems. The moon and stars influenced their architecture, highlighting Lunar events like equinoxes and solstices. The ancient buildings were aligned with astronomical events in mind and they can still be viewed during a tour of Belize’s various archaeological sites. 

Why a Winter Solstice Celebration?

For Belize’s Institute of Archaeology (IA), public education goes hand in hand with the conservation of these precious monuments. Hence, to observe the winter solstice in 2023, they organized a cultural event called “A Night at the Plaza.” A Night at the Plaza was the second Caracol Winter Solstice celebration held from December 20th to 21st, 2023; with the first event in 2012 when many thought the world might end. Now we can laugh at ourselves knowing that it was actually the end of a cycle and era and the beginning of a new one.

As one of the longest-studied sites in Belize, Caracol has provided a wealth of information to archaeologists. Dr. Arlene Chase, from the Caracol Archaeological Project, sheds light on the correlation between E-groups and archaeoastronomical alignment. These structures serve as a testament to the Maya’s keen observation of the horizon, using it as a basis for their calendar observations, measurements, and celebrations. Therefore, the Institute of Archaeology created an experience for visitors to witness the illumination of the stars under the shady canopy of Caana- the largest Maya temple in Belize.

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Photo Credit: Travel Belize

The ancient Maya were deeply ingrained in spiritual ceremonies, considering these practices a fundamental aspect of their way of life. This remains a part of the heritage of the Maya people today and were on display at a Night at the Plaza. There was a Sunrise Fire Ceremony led by cultural practitioner and promoter, Mrs Felicita Cantun, which emphasized respect for the ancestors and the natural environment and gratitude for blessings received throughout the year. There was also the demonstration of the ancient ball game of Pok-ta-Pok. The sport has seen a revival in recent years in Belize and surrounding countries. A highlight was the unique fireball game which left visitors in awe.

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In its ongoing commitment to establishing a stronger connection with the public, the Institute of Archaeology seeks innovative avenues for educational outreach. Events like the Winter Solstice celebration serve as reminders of the urgent need for conservation and preservation of tangible and intangible cultural practices. Visit Belize for the next Winter Solstice to experience the beauty of the magnificent Caracol Archaeological Reserve.

Information contribution and photos by the Institute of Archaeology