Celebrating the Winter Solstice at Home

Celebrating the Winter Solstice at Home

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Before we had Christmas, our ancestors celebrated the winter solstice. Sometimes called the first day of winter, it’s also referred to as midwinter. Regardless of its name, to our ancestors it was an important time when the sun’s activity was at its lowest. Many people today still feel a connection to this ancient celebration. But at this busy time of year, what can you do to mark the occasion?

 

What is the Winter Solstice?

The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, is the day with the shortest amount of daylight in the year. A solstice happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere, at the precise moment when either the North or South Pole is tilted away from the sun at its maximum angle.

We often hear the winter solstice referred to as the first day of winter. But how can it be both midwinter and the first day of winter? Thankfully we can clear up the confusion for you! It happens because there are differences between the astronomical and meteorological calendars.

Astronomical seasons are based on the Earth’s orbit around to the Sun. According to this calendar the winter solstice is the first day of winter, it ends on the spring equinox around 20th March. But meteorological seasons are based on temperature cycles. December, January and February are the coldest months of the year, so the meteorological winter starts on December 1st.

Whether you choose to call it midwinter or the first day of winter, the winter solstice occurs between the 20th and 23rd of December, although it most frequently falls on the 21st or 22nd. This year it takes place on Friday 21st December at 22.23 (Irish time). Of course, the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the summer solstice south of the equator, and vice versa.

 

Why Is The Winter Solstice Celebrated?

Nowadays we’re somewhat sheltered from seasonal cycles, but ancient civilisations were not. Their survival depended on their observance of seasonal changes and the world around them. Solstice means ‘stand still’ and for our ancestors, the winter solstice was a special time of the year when the sun literally stood still in the sky. For a few days it appeared to rise and set in the same place, and was the culmination of a time when the days had become progressively shorter.

Of course, as we all know, after the winter solstice daylight hours gradually become longer. The ancients would have known this too and their midwinter celebrations were essentially about welcoming the rebirth of the sun.

Celebrations around the time of the winter solstice are prevalent in cultures across the world and throughout history. In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated on 17th December to honour the agricultural god Saturn. It was later extended to a three day festival, and eventually it became six days of general debauchery and revelry – even for slaves, who were given the freedom to do and say whatever they liked.

 

 

Religions have always borrowed from each other. It was easier for a new religion to gain acceptance if it allowed converts to hold onto their traditions and customs. Christianity was no different. In fact, Christmas is really another  incarnation of these midwinter festivals, and many of its customs come directly from its predecessors . During Saturnalia, for instance, people gave each other small presents. Here in Ireland, many of our Christmas traditions originated in pagan midwinter celebrations.

 

The Passage Tomb at Newgrange

In Ireland, we’re lucky enough to have a special connection with the ancient celebration of the winter solstice. Five thousand years ago, a group of people built a tomb at Newgrange which aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. Although we know very little about these Stone Age builders, we do at least know that the winter solstice was very important to them. The sheer knowledge, labour, patience and time they invested into constructing Newgrange is evidence of that.

 

 

Every year for a few days around the time of the solstice, the monument still draws a crowd. People travel to Newgrange to experience the first day of winter at this special place. It seems that we still have a deep connection to our ancestors and their way of life stretching back through history.

In fact, Newgrange seems to have retained a significance to different groups of people throughout the millennia. It’s thought the tomb itself had fallen into disuse by the time Bronze Age people settled there 4,000 years ago. However, evidence suggests it was still used for religious ceremonies because a huge circular enclosure was built nearby. When the Celts arrived 3,000 years ago, Newgrange was re-purposed as a centre for the worship of Celtic gods.

 

How to celebrate the winter solstice in Ireland

So, what can you do to mark this ancient and special occasion? You could join the crowds who will gather at Newgrange every morning for the rest of this week to watch the sunrise. You might even be among the lucky few chosen by lottery in September to experience the event inside the chamber!

But Newgrange isn’t the only monument in Ireland with a winter solstice solar alignment – it’s just the most well known. The nearby Dowth tomb also has a solar alignment at this time. Unfortunately, there is no public access to Dowth but you can join a celebration at the site on Friday evening.  People also gather at the Hill of Tara. While there is no solstice phenomenon there, events will take place to mark the occasion.

Knockroe Passage Tomb in Kilkenny also has a solar alignment at the winter solstice. In fact, it has a solar alignment at both sunrise and sunset on the day. So if you can’t travel to Co Meath, you could join the events taking place at Knockroe.

 

 

Of course, during the busy days before Christmas many people can’t spare the time to travel to an ancient site. But the winter solstice is really about welcoming the rebirth of the sun, and you can easily mark the occasion at home. You can go all out or do something simple to mark this ancient connection with nature and the seasonal cycles. Here are some ideas:

  • burn candles or light a fire to welcome the return of the sun
  • make a yule log by decorating a log with holly and pine cones – if you don’t have a fireplace you can place candles on top of the log instead of burning it
  • decorate a tree in your garden (yule trees were the precursors to the Christmas tree)
  • have a candlelit solstice feast with close family or friends
  • stay up all night to welcome the sunrise
  • go all out with a winter solstice party

However you choose to celebrate, we wish you a very happy winter solstice!

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