It seems that for millennia mankind has commemorated the winter solstice. It’s a time of rebirth as the sun conquers the darkness of winter and the days grow longer. For most of us Christmas is our winter tradition, but I thought I’d share some other traditions and places with you that have significance at this time of year.
Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland is a prehistoric passage tomb estimated to be between four and five thousand years old. At sunrise on the winter solstice the sun shines through the roof box at the entrance and illuminates the passage and chamber for approximately seventeen minutes. We can only guess at the significance of this but Newgrange is an amazing structure and I can’t believe these ancient people would go to the trouble of building it to such exacting astronomical specifications if the winter solstice wasn’t significant to them.
This is an aerial view of Newgrange and below is a photo of the sun shining through the roof box on the winter solstice.
The romans held a mid-winter festival named Saturnalia for the God Saturn. They decorated their houses in greenery, lit candles, and gave each other presents. It was also a time when the normal order of things was turned upside down. Men dressed as women, and masters dressed as servants.
The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is held for eight nights and days. It occurs between the end of November and the end of December according to the Hebrew calendar. Families might exchange small gifts, and a candle is lit each night of Hanukkah. It is a time of prayer and remembrance.
It seems that yule or yuletide was a tradition of the Germanic and Nordic countries. Vikings brought the pagan mid-winter festival to England and was later absorbed into Christianity. It was a lively celebration held in honor of the rising sun and the end of darkening days. It is believed they celebrated for twelve days, hence the twelve days of Christmas. They lit bonfires, decorated evergreen trees to appease the tree spirits, and burnt a yule log.
Sadeh is an ancient Iranian mid-winter custom. Traditionally a fire was kept burning for three days with the evenings spent feasting and giving food donations to those less fortunate.
Some of these traditions have been absorbed into our Christmas celebration. This seems practical when you consider that the early church often took over pagan festivities and made them Christian holidays. There is no way to tell the exact day Christ was born, and so it seems fitting to celebrate his birth on a holiday that was already about giving, rebirth, and hope.
I won’t be writing my blog again until the New Year and so whatever your holiday traditions I hope you have a wonderful, safe and warm mid-winter celebration.