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The Winter Solstice

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. It literally means that the sun stands still: from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (standing still). The midwinter sun rises at its furthest point in the southeast and sets in its nearest point in the southwest, thus making the shortest and lowest circuit in the sky. For three days (the day before, the day of and the day after the solstice) the sun rises and sets on the same points of the horizon, until it begins to rise further east and set further west with each and every day. This phenomenon occurs between 20 - 22 December each year. The Welsh name for this time is Alban Arthan, a term coined by the 19th century poet and writer of forgeries, Iolo Morganwg. This translates as "Light of Winter" or "Light of the Bear", although it is also known as Alban Arthuan, which means "Light of Arthur". The "Light of the Bear" is an interesting translation, which may have roots going back 13,000 years and connected to the circumpolar constellation or Ursa Major, which would be very visible and very bright in the British Isles at this time of year, during the greatest darkness. [1]

Here in Britain, the sun doesn't travel very high in the sky at all during this time, and is always casting long shadows across the wintry landscape. The daylight doesn't really start much before 9am at the darkest point, and the darkness creeps back in around 3.30pm. It can be a real challenge for people living in northerly latitudes at this time of year, and the reverse in southern latitudes when they experience their winter months. The effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder are now well known, as the brain produces less serotonin and melatonin during the winter months due to lack of sunlight, as well as affecting the body's circadian rhythms.

In Britain and Europe it is also known as the Midwinter Solstice, for indeed at this point it is the middle part of winter. For the Celts, winter began around Samhain, and its effects diminished around Imbolc, when the first signs of spring began to show. There are even songs describing this time of year, such as "In the Bleak Midwinter" based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti in 1872. It has a rather Pagan beginning, though the rest of the poem (put to music by Gustav Holst in 1906) is very Christian:

"In the bleak mid-winter

Frosty wind made moan;

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter

Long ago."

Pagan traces of another carol popular at this time of the year can be found in traditional "The Holly and the Ivy", again an amalgamation of Pagan and Christian influences:

    "The holly and the ivy,

    When they are both full grown,

    Of all the trees that are in the wood,

    The holly bears the crown.

    The rising of the sun

    And the running of the deer,

    The playing of the merry organ,

    Sweet singing in the choir."

The tradition of wassailing happens during this time (found in another incarnation as carolling) and usually occurs during the Twelfth Night (5 - 6 January). People could either go door to door in the form of house wassailing, or in the orchards as is a common practice in the western counties of England: Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Songs would be sung, toast dipped in cider and hung on branches, and shotguns shot into the branches of the trees to drive away evil spirits (or a lazy form of pruning!). This is the chant/song, followed by banging on pots and pans and generally creating a raucous:

"Here's to thee, old apple tree,

That blooms well, bears well.

Hats full, caps full,

Three bushel bags full,

An' all under one tree.

Hurrah! Hurrah!"

There are many traditions related to the Winter Solstice, such as the creation of the Kissing Bough, which may be an old remnant from Celtic times, when mistletoe, an herb sacred to the Druids, was honoured. It is at this time of year when mistletoe is the most obvious, not being hidden by any leaves and showing clearly among the bare branches of the trees in midwinter. Kissing under the mistletoe is a common custom, but the Kissing Bough is a more elaborate piece, created from two hoops entwined and covered with greenery, with mistletoe at the base. Inside are hung a male and female figure, and after every kiss a berry is taken from the mistletoe until all the berries are gone. [2]

Bringing evergreens into the home is traditional, and stems back from Pagan origins in Europe. Holly wreaths and spruce or fir trees are honoured at this time of year, and signify the continuity of life even in the darkest depths of winter. We know that trees were very important to the Druids and the Celts, as well as for many other forms of Paganism found throughout Western Europe. The Yule log is possibly a descendant of an ancient Pagan custom, where this year's log had to be lit from a remnant of the previous year. It is often said that the log is of either oak or ash, both considered to be symbolic of the World Tree or axis mundi.

There are many ancient megalithic sites in Britain that are aligned to the Winter Solstice. The most famous of all, Stonehenge, is often known for its summer solstice sunrise, but rather more significant is the midwinter sunset, where every 19 years the setting crescent of the new moon could be seen in the upper half of the Great Trilithon even as the sun set in the lower half. What a spectacle that would have been! Sadly, those stones have now fallen and this phenomenon is no longer visible. Newgrange (Brugh Na Boinne) in Ireland is another Neolithic site dedicated to the midwinter solstice, where through a small window the first rays of the solstice sunrise fall upon the back wall deep within the chamber, lighting up spirals of rebirth carved into the rock itself. At Callanish stone circle in Scotland, during the winter solstice the setting sun aligns with the top of Tirga Mor, as well as containing alignments for the equinoxes and summer solstice. In Glastonbury, the sun rolls up the side of the Tor when viewed from St Edmunds Mount (Windmill Hill). In Neolithic times, the notches in the sides of the Tor would have allowed the sun to be viewed through them and then disappear back into the Tor, before emerging through the top. This is due to the fact that the tilt of the earth has shifted slightly since Neolithic times, and now the sun rolls up the side. Both are spectacular.

The Christian holiday of Christmas seems to have been deliberately placed on the 25th December to compete with the Pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, for at this time, usually around three days after the solstice, we can begin to see the sun's change of direction when rising and setting on the horizon and the resulting lengthening days. It was recorded by a Christian writer, the Scriptor Syrus in the late fourth century why indeed this date was chosen by the Christians, when in the Bible no actual date for the birth was Christ can be found:

"It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December, the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and reveleries the Christians also took part. Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should solemnized on that day".[3]

Modern Druidry sees this as the time when the sun's strength returns and is celebrated. I can personally attest to the great joy in seeing the sun's return in lengthening days here in the UK after a long and dark winter, and each precious few minutes of extra sunlight are indeed something to be celebrated! It is a time to gather around the hearth, and be with friends and family through the long winter nights.

[1] Bradley E Schaefer, "The Origin of the Greek Constellations: Was the Great Bear constellation named before hunter nomads first reached the Americas more than 13,000 years ago?", Scientific American, November 2006

[2] Cater, Karen, The Shortest Day: A Little Book of the Winter Solstice, Hedingham Fair 2014

[3] Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, 1996

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  Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  


  • Agnes Toews-Andrews
    Agnes Toews-Andrews Tuesday, 05 December 2017

    I enjoyed reading about Scriptor Syrus and how the new "Christians" created a diversion--Christ Mass, to offset the pagan Winter Solstice, because the Christians enjoyed too much the pagan festivities. Thank you for this information!

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