STONEHENGE, England — Druids, drummers, pagans and partygoers welcomed the sun Thursday as it rose above the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge on the longest day of the year — the summer solstice.

Clad in antlers, black cloaks and oak leaves, a group of druids cheered and danced at the Heel stone — a twisted, pockmarked pillar at the edge of Stonehenge.

"Happy solstice!" said Laura Tungate, a 26-year-old financial adviser from Newcastle, who wore a giant rainbow sweater and offered hugs to smiling passers-by.

Taking a swig from a mug of vodka and Red Bull, she said she had been coming to the solstice ceremony for the past eight years.

"I love the whole vibe, and the energy, and the fact that these stones, that they are alive, they do breathe, and they do grow ... and they're massive!" she said.

About 24,000 people gathered at the stone circle in Wiltshire, in southwestern England. Dancers writhed to the sound of drums and whistles as floodlights colored the ancient pillars shades of pink and purple. Couples snuggled under plastic sheets.

Solstice celebrations were a highlight of the pre-Christian calendar. Bonfires, maypole dances, and courtship rituals linger on in many countries as holdovers from Europe's pagan past.

In more recent years, New Age groups and others have turned to Stonehenge to celebrate the solstice, and the World Heritage Site has become a magnet for men and women seeking a spiritual experience — or just wanting to have a good time.

Jeanette Montesano, a 23-year-old recently graduated religion student from New York City and a self-described pagan, said she had been saving for a year to make it to Stonehenge, comparing the importance of the trip to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

"It's not the hajj, but it is (thousands of) people in a little circle. I wanted to experience something like that," she said.

But the celebrations can also attract their share of troublemakers. Police closed the site in 1984 after repeated clashes with revelers. English Heritage, the monument's caretaker, began allowing full access to the Stonehenge again in 2000.

Police and about 200 English Heritage stewards were deployed to keep the hedonists from getting out of hand. Police reported four arrests for public order violations.

Solstice celebrations also take place in other countries, although most are deferred until the last weekend in June. Swedes will sip spiced schnapps, Danes will light bonfires, and Balts and Finns will flock to the countryside to dance, sing, and make merry under the midnight sun in one of the region's most important holidays.

The southern hemisphere, meanwhile, was caught in the depths of winter. In Antarctica, where permanent night rules from mid-April through Aug. 20, staff at New Zealand's Scott Base science facility celebrated the midwinter solstice with a formal dinner of speeches and toasts.

Scott Base Manager Glenn Powell said it was a special time for him and his colleagues.

"We do survive in total darkness — so the return of the sun is a very special occasion," he told The Associated Press by phone. "We're celebrating the fact that it won't go any further away."

Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain 80 miles southwest of London, was built between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C., although its original purpose is a mystery. Some experts say the monument's builders aligned the stones as part of their sun-worshipping culture.

It is one of 20 monuments competing to be named one of the new seven wonders of the world in a massive online poll.

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Associated Press Writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Sweden; Gary Peach in Riga, Latvia; Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Finland; and Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.