There’s something about a cold day in December, the sky growing dark, the fire lit, candles glowing, a glass of red wine and a good book. Christmas is approaching and it’s already the shortest day. I’ve always been fascinated at the old traditions and history of the seasons and festivals, particularly those destroyed by religion. And the Winter Solstice has something really magical about it.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year – the day that has the shortest periods of daylight. It’s always been a cause for celebration because it means that we’ve reached a turning point – that the days will slowly get longer and we’re on our way to spring (even if it doesn’t feel like it). Our ancestors always knew how to throw a celebration and the winter solstice was a great excuse. There are some fascinating traditions associated with the point of midwinter and many of them have been stolen to become part of Christmas. It’s wonderful that some traditions have been revived and some new ones are beginning.
Burning the Clocks – Brighton, England
A relatively new tradition, this began in 1993, but has its roots in the idea of lengthening days and shortening nights.
A procession of lanterns and costumes, all bearing a clock face, makes its way through the streets and down to the seafront. Here, the paper and willow lantern are burnt – the lantern makers make wishes, voice their hopes and fears, and pass them into the lanterns before they are placed into the fire.
Newgrange Gathering, Boyne Valley, Ireland
Newgrange is a 5200-year-old passage tomb built by stone age farmers. Above the entrance is an opening, On mornings around the winter solstice, a beam of light penetrates the opening and travels up the passage, illuminating it and the chamber. As the sun rises, the whole chamber lights up dramatically.
Stonehenge Gathering, Wiltshire, England
Druids and pagans gather at Stonehenge for both the summer and winter solstices. At the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone. At winter solstice, the sun would have set between the narrow gap of the uprights of the tallest trilithon, which is no longer standing. The sun was so important to our ancestors, providing warmth, allowing crops to grow. They must have had such fear and respect for the earth, the sun, the moon and the power of nature, something we sadly lack.
Montol Festival, Cornwall, England
The Montol Festival in Penzance is a revival of many of the traditional Cornish Midwinter customs. There is Guise dancing, (from ‘disguise’ – dancers hide their identity so they can get up to mischief!) the Cornish candle dance, and performances of Guiser plays.
Midwinter, while sometimes viewed as dark and depressing, can be a really magical time. So much of our history and heritage is in the traditions that pre-date religion. While there’s a lot of noise around the fears that Christmas is being overly secularised, it’s worth bearing in mind that winter has long been a time of festivals and traditions since long before Christmas. So here’s wishing you a happy, healthy Winter Solstice – and let’s look forward to the lengthening days ahead.