Winter Solstice – New Hope and Newgrange

This year sees the Winter Solstice in Ireland a day later than usual, on 22nd December. Today that extra 24 hours may not seem a big deal, but thousands of years ago, it was an additional day lived in fear of long dark nights.

So what exactly is the Winter Solstice and why was it so important to our Celtic ancestors and their hopes for the future?

What is a Winter Solstice?

It is important to understand that all our festivals and traditions in Ireland are born from our farming heritage. A necessary way of life dating back to the Tuatha Dé Danann, our ancient race of Demi-gods. Everything we knew related to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, sowing and reaping, harvest and regrowth.

The term ‘Solstice’ actually stems from two Latin words – ‘Sol’ meaning sun and ‘Sistere’ meaning stand still. A point in the Northern Hemisphere where the day reaches its shortest in terms of light and the night is the longest by way of darkness. For a farming nation, this was not the end, but the beginning.

Agriculture and Paganism

This rural way of life was mirrored in the beliefs of the Druids and so many pagan rituals and festivities were borne of necessity. In a year that was measured by solar and lunar movement this moment was a fundamental turning point – the rebirth of the sun.

A fear was instilled from generation to generation, that as the light faded it would not return. Superstition and a need for ritual and tradition were the only ways to hold back the darkness for a nation at the mercy of the seasons and the sun.

It was a time when ancient trees were revered by pagans as they were believed to hold the power, the magic, the key to life and death. It was said that the battle of light and dark was between the Holly King and the Oak King. At the Winter Solstice the Oak would defeat the Holly and thus light would begin returning to the world.

Mistletoe was considered mystical and potent in protection so it would be cut from its habitat, growing on other strong trees such as the oak and offered up for blessings to be brought upon the home.

Origins of Christmas

Candlelight was a vital weapon against the encompassing darkness and the evil that lurked within, a tool to banish the malevolent. The Yule log, adopted from our Norse fellow pagans was lit and surrounded by evergreens such as ivy and mistletoe.

Food was shared among neighbours, produce that was easily preserved such as fruit, nuts, and baked goods that were full of spices for warmth and longevity. Harvested grains and fruits had completed their fermentation process and were handed out as alcoholic beverages and gifts were given to those who helped most in the community. This is all beginning to sound very familiar!

Newgrange

Each year on the Winter Solstice, as the sun begins to rise, a lottery selected chosen few are given the chance to experience the ethereal wonder inside the inner chamber of a Neolithic structure older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza. An event that was first witnessed in recent times by Professor M. J. O’Kelly on 21st December 1967. The first such occurrence in over 5000 years.

Newgrange sits in the Boyne Valley in County Meath, Ireland and is to all intents and purposes, an ancient temple. A convergence of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance.

It is a mound structure stretching over one acre and is held in place by 97 kerbstones, covered in Megalithic artwork. It is just one of a series of such structures following the path of the River Boyne, however it is the most imposing and significant one of all.

From the home of the Tuatha Dé Dannan to the burial site of the ancient Kings of Tara, speculation as to the rhyme and reason for Newgrange continues – its past shrouded in mystery.

As with many pagan and particularly Druidic locations in Ireland, it succumbed to Christianity. The Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont was founded close by and the surrounding lands were procured as farmland, known as a Grange.

The inner passage at Newgrange is 19 metres in length and leads to a room laid out in the shape of a cross known as a cruciform chamber. The discovery of burned and decayed human remains as well as tools, show us that the monument was much more than a way of measuring the seasons, it was a monument to life and death.

As sunrise begins, and as the weather allows, a thin ray of light creeps along the exterior of the tomb and in through a narrow opening. Like an outstretched hand it reaches along the inner passage and explodes into a ball of light, marking one of the most significant astronomical moments in the Druid calendar. This is until once again, Newgrange is overwhelmed by darkness, a reminder of how little control we have over the sun and the onset of night. For today however, we have a new Winter Solstice and new hope is upon us.

ZOMBIE IRELAND: A BITE OF SUPERSTITION

zombie ireland

In Ireland aside from the fear of the soul entering eternal damnation, one of the biggest fears in relation to death is that the dead will rise and inflict carnage on the living.  So being practical and all, the Irish have gone to great lengths to make sure that just didn’t happen!

Zombie Ireland: A Bite of Superstition

SAMHAIN, SUPERSTITION AND SUPPERS FOR THE DEAD

samhain

As Samhain draws to a close for another year, it is a time to reflect on the origins of this pagan celebration and what it meant to those who, over centuries maintained the traditions and rites synonymous with this feast in Ireland.

Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) would begin at sunset on 31st October and end at sunset on 1st November, signalling the beginning of a new year.  It is one of four major celebrations during the Celtic year and signifies the end of summer.

This was a time when cattle were brought in and slaughtered for the winter months, the bitter cold and poor pasture leaving farmers no choice.

The ceremonies for Samhain were intertwined – the light and dark, protections against bad spirits and misfortune and a welcome for the dead to return.

As with Beltane, at the heart of Samhain is the customary communal bonfire. The fire was a protection ritual, to purge bad fortune and influence and to defend from harm during the long hard winter.

All house fires would be quenched, the central fire the only one alight. Each family would take a burning ember from the bonfire, carried in a hollowed out turnip and use it to reignite their own hearth, instilling the same protection and cleansing into their own homes and lives.

The bones of slaughtered cattle would be cast onto the fire as an offering for a good winter and objects symbolising wishes or ailments would be thrown on the flames, individuals hoping to be cured or receive their hearts desires.

Samhain is the time of year when the curtain between our world and the next becomes so fragile that the both the fairies and the dead can take a simple step between realms.

Many of the dead were welcomed back into the family fold with open arms, a place set for returning souls to sit at the table. This was known as a Dumb Supper and all living guests were to dine in silence, listening and watching for a word or sign from their dearly departed.

The fear for celebrants was that of course malevolent spirits could also cross over as could the Devil himself. These evil entities were thought to wreak havoc on the villages by making cattle sick and bringing disease to households so ‘guising’ would be carried out as a symbolic gesture to hide from those not wanted.

A typical costume was the Láir Bhán (White Mare) which would consist of a man covered in a white cloth, carrying a horse’s skull in his hands. He would lead a group of youths from farm to farm blowing on cow horns and asking for food.  Woe betide any farmer who refused for he would be cursed with bad luck for the coming year.

As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief on this most ethereal of nights. Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing.  Anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.

It was these beliefs and traditions that led us to trick or treating and costumes in today’s Halloween, so a fistful of sweets for protection from mischief and misfortune is a small price to pay don’t you think?