For a returning expat I knew the weather was going to be the hardest part about being in the UK. I was only partly right. The lack of daylight in winter is the real killer. On bright sunny days it is wonderful – but for such a short time. The sun never gets close to the yard arm – never mind over it – and before you realize it, its’ dark. The sun sets before 4 pm.
I know the payback is summer and the long evenings, but somehow, in the depths of winter, you tend to forget. And it’s a long time until the days are meaningfully longer – although as today is the Winter Solstice, from tomorrow they do start to lengthen.
So, I looked into the Solstice to find a bit more about it’s global significance……
No one’s really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began celebrating it as a turning point – the day that marks the return of the sun. The Mesopotamians were first, with a 12-day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.
Many, many cultures around the world perform solstice ceremonies. At their root: an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with nighlong vigil or careful celebration.
An utterly astounding array of ancient cultures built their greatest architectures – tombs, temples, cairns and sacred observatories — so that they aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Many of us know that Stonehenge in our home county of Wiltshire is a perfect marker of both solstices.
But not so many people are familiar with Newgrange, a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland. This huge circular stone structure is estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge, older even than the pyramids at Giza. It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on winter solstice.
The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carvings — spirals, eye shapes, solar discs. Although not much is known about how Newgrange was used by its builders, marking the solstice was obviously of tremendous spiritual import to them.
Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, shares a similar trait, admitting the winter solstice setting sun. It is hailed as “one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland.”
Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. The blossoming field of ‘archaeoastronomy’ (no, I’d never heard of it either) studies such sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East.
Recent research into the medieval Great Zimbabwe in sub-Saharan Africa (also known as the “African Stonehenge”) indicates a similar purpose. In North America, one of the most famous such sites is the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built a thousand years ago by the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo people. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar seemed to understand the importance of these sun-facing seasonal turning points.
In a book, The Sun in the Church reveals that many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church, once again reinforcing the close ties between religious celebration and seasonal passages, needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe.
Typically, a small hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.
Christmas was transplanted onto winter solstice some 1,600 years ago, centuries before the English language emerged from its Germanic roots. Is that why we came to express these two ideas in words that sound so similar? In this linguistic puzzle:
The rebirth of the sun.
The birth of the Son.
You may have heard of apple wassailing, the medieval winter festival custom of blessing the apple trees with songs, dances, decorations and a drink of cider to ensure their fertility. Thats another, more obscure tradition that most certainly predates Christmas, and was probably once a solstice ritual, because it is so linked to the themes of nature’s rebirth and fertility
In Romania, there’s a traditional Christmas confection called a turta. It is made of many layers of pastry dough, filled with melted sugar or honey, ground walnuts, or hemp seed.
In this tradition, with the making of the cake families enact a lovely little ceremony to assure the fruitfulness of their orchard come spring. When the wife is in the midst of kneading the dough, she follows her husband into the wintry garden. The man goes from barren tree to tree, threatening to cut each one down. Each time, the wife urges that he spare the tree by saying:
“Oh no, I am sure that this tree will be as heavy with fruit next spring as my fingers are with dough this day.”
Winter solstice was overlaid with Christmas, and the observance of Christmas spread throughout the globe. Along the way, we lost some of the deep connection of our celebrations to a fundamental seasonal, hemispheric event – the only truly seasonal celebration in most of the Christian west is now Thanksgiving, which plays a far more significant role in American culture that in English. Perhaps this recalls the difficulties the pilgrims had in surviving in the New World?
Winter solstice celebrations are clearly not just an invention of the ancient Europeans. They are truly global.
Native Americans had winter solstice rites. The sun images at right are from rock paintings of the Chumash, who occupied coastal California for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Solstices were tremendously important to them, and the winter solstice celebration lasted several days.
In Iran, there is the observance of Yalda, in which families kept vigil through the night and fires burned brightly to help the sun (and Goodness) battle darkness (thought evil).
Winter solstice celebrations are also part of the cultural heritage of Pakistan and Tibet. And in China, even though the calendar is based on the moon, the day of winter solstice is called Dong Zhi, “The Arrival of Winter.” The cold of winter made an excellent excuse for a feast, so that’s how the Chinese observed it, with Ju Dong, “doing the winter.” (Point of note here: the Chinese being eminently pragmatic, celebrate anything and everything with a dinner. And its’ a deeply held tradition that if you are the token foreigner, you get to pay)
And what of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights that occurs around this time every year? Is it related to other celebrations of the season?
The placement of Hanukkah is tied to both the lunar and solar calendars. It begins on the 25th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the Winter Solstice. It commemorates an historic event — the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. But the form of this celebration, a Festival of Lights (with candles at the heart of the ritual), makes Hanukkah wonderfully compatible with other celebrations at this time of year. As a symbolic celebration of growing light and as a commemoration of spiritual rebirth, it also seems closely related to other observances.
In many cultures, customs practiced at Christmas go back to pre-Christian times. Many involve divination – foretelling the future at a magic time: the season turning of solstice.
In Russia, there’s a Christmas divination that involves candles. A girl would sit in a darkened room, with two lighted candles and two mirrors, pointed so that one reflects the candlelight into the other. The viewer would seek the seventh reflection, then look until her future would be seen.
The early Germans built a stone altar to Hertha, or Bertha, goddess of domesticity and the home, during winter solstice. With a fire of fir boughs stoked on the altar, Hertha was able to descend through the smoke and guide those who were wise in Saga lore to foretell the fortunes of those at the feast.
In Spain, there’s an old custom that is a holdover from Roman days. The urn of fate is a large bowl containing slips of paper on which are written all the names of those at a family get-together. The slips of paper are drawn out two at a time. Those whose names are so joined are to be devoted friends for the year. Apparently, there’s often a little ‘enronning’ to help matchmaking along, as well.
In Scandinavia, some families place all their shoes together, as this will cause them to live in harmony throughout the year.
And in many, many cultures, it’s considered bad luck for a fire or a candle to go out on Christmas Day.
So, I’ll be tending the fire all day on Sunday…. And given the forecast of a possible white Christmas I’ll be staying safe and warm in doors with mulled wine and a mince pie to ward of the hoards of kids who are staying with us…. Happy Solstice!