The Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. It occurs when one of the earth’s poles has its maximum slant away from the sun and it happens twice in each hemisphere at the peak of winter and summer. The solstices, the seasons and the changing length of daylight hours throughout the year are all due to one fact: the earth spins on a tilted axis.
The sun makes a sine wave across the sky over the course of the year, sometimes farther south or farther north. When the sun is 23.5° south in latitude and directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, which occurs on and around December 21st, the Winter Solstice takes place. At its farthest southerly point, having moved slowly since last June, the sun “stops” for approximately three days before it starts to slowly creep back north again. During this time, there is a peak moment of the Solstice. In 2019, this will occur at 04.19 Irish time on December 22nd.
In our Celtic landscapes, the Winter Solstice is an ancient seasonal rite of passage that is ageless. We do know not when our ancestors first stood together and paused in harmony at midwinter. Our sacred sites such as the world famous Brú na Bóinne or New Grange, aligned to the morning’s rising sun, tell us that Winter Solstice was important enough over 5,000 years ago to build a temple to this poignant solar event.
In Irish, the Winter Solstice is “An Grianstad”, literally translating as “the sun stop”. This accuracy in describing the sun’s intercourse with the earth helps us to momentarily stop also and integrate our fast moving modern lives with the plateau of maximum darkness and minimum light. These days of Winter Solstice time are precious, the pinnacle of a darkening that calls us to rest, be still, recover and dream. The minutes of sunlight in our days will eventually begin to increase towards that other great day of the season, Christmas Day.
The experience of darkness is such a different condition to light and is often sadly stigmatised. We are so accustomed to beginning things when the light is turned on, when the sun rises and when we open our eyes and adjust. Yet nature says the beginnings are in the dark. Life first is dreamed and vibrates in the absence of light. The seeds sown in autumn germinate underground through winter before appearing as shoots in spring. Each one of us reading this lived our first nine months or thereabouts in our mother’s dark womb.
Our ancestors intuitively understood this phenomenon, acknowledging the new day at dusk and the New Year at Samhain (Hallow’een). They regarded the time between Samhain and the climax of the seasonal darkness of Winter Solstice as the treasured dreamtime of new life. Nature invites us to stir ourselves as courageous and passionate dreamers and to be in synchronicity with the great natural hibernation about us. Our invitation is to birth new prayers, new wishes, new intentions and new manifestations for ourselves and for our world.
In many traditions, Winter Solstice, also known as Midwinter and/or the Festival of Yule, is a time for rituals and celebrations. In a sense, this was a turning point in the battle of dark versus light in the world. On the island of Ireland, our ancestors who constructed Brú na Bóinne did not see Winter Solstice as an adversarial event, but a turning point in which reverence of the vital energies of darkness and lightness are understood, honoured and celebrated. When we embrace this perspective in our personal lives, we can claim reward and peace in our lives too.
Many still gather at Brú na Bóinne on Winter Solstice morning. While the chosen few who have won the lottery will be inside at sunrise at 8.36am, hundreds more will sing and dance or simply stand in awe. If skies are clear, the golden orb of the Sun peaks above Red Hill. If lucky, those in the Cairn may witness the sunlight snaking its way through the lightbox up the ancient path to penetrate the centre of this stunning architectural monument to a magnificent feat of nature. That this still occurs 5,000 years after Brú na Bóinne was built is itself a enthralling phenomenon.
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