The word Solstice comes from the Latin solstitium, which translates roughly into “still sun.” On December 21st/22nd the sun reaches it’s lowest point in our sky and marks the shortest day of the year and the longest night. For approximately 3 days the sun seems to “stand still” in our sky, after which it rises a little more to the east and sets a wee bit to the west, foreshadowing longer days, birth, renewal and hope. In the past, the solstice was observed with reverence. Today, our most common reincarnation of this ancient reverence is Christmas. The Birth of Christ, alternatively the birth of the new sun after 3 days in the underworld.
In the Celtic calendar – the winter solstice represents mid-winter because the sun will slowly stretch its way across the sky giving way to spring in a mere 6 weeks! Here, in Canada, the winter solstice marks the official beginning of winter and despite having accepted and embraced the darkness – we endure another 3 months (or more for much of the country) of blistery, cold weather (granted with longer days so there is that!).
This morning, I woke to quickly put on an over-sized parka and scarf, ears and fingers completely exposed and marched out as quick as I could to the river and greet the morning’s sunrise. The sky was that dusty pink and the moon a hanging sliver of pure silver in the sky. The earth was completely frozen and I felt invigorated! As I walked to the north, the fields ahead one by one were awash in a gold light as the sun rose. Henry and I walked back home with the sun rising still. Imagining what this meant for our ancestors of thousands of years, how did they feel?
I’ve been reading through some of my folklore books in search of customs and lore that revolve around the winter solstice. Most of my books are about Gaelic folk customs since it’s what I studied in my undergrad. I thought that I would find a plethora of information regarding the topic but as I sat down and actually started reading – I found so little! My guess is that Christmas supplanted much of the old customs and lore that revolved around the shortest day of the year and the subsequent rebirth of the sun. There are hints though, most notably the megalithic structure of Brú na Bóinne or New Grange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland. This impressive passage tomb that dates back to 3200 BC is an amazing example of archaeoastronomy. The structure has a long passage to an inner chamber which on the morning of the Winter Solstice, is flooded with the light of the rising sun. It’s a clear example of our ancestor’s veneration for the solar cycle and clearly indicates the importance of being in tune with nature. For them, it was a matter of life and death.
In the Irish mythological cycles, Brú na Bóinne plays an integral role as the home of the Tuatha Dé Dannan – the race of gods who once defeated in the Battle of Motuyra were banished to the underworld and dwell in mounds throughout Ireland. There is a belief that the Irish fairies are diminished forms of these Celtic gods. Although Brú na Bóinne is often mentioned throughout the early Irish myths and Sagas, specifically in relation to being the home of a certain God or Goddess, there is no mention of the winter solstice (or at least, that I found or remember). Rather, Samuin is often mentioned in relation to strange things happening at Brú na Bóinne. Samuin (Halloween) is of course 6 weeks before the Winter solstice and marks the end and beginning of the year – a day in which the boundaries between the worlds grow thin and those that dwell underground can effortlessly mingle on the earth. It was of utmost importance in the Celtic year. Regardless, Brú na Bóinne was constructed to capture the winter solstice. Whether people actually witnessed it is hard to say – I have read a theory that it was only for the dead and the underworld.
Since the mythology does not point to the winter solstice as being associated with Brú na Bóinne, I think it’s an indication that the site predates the Celtic People of Ireland. Often you will read that the megalithic monuments all around the world were already there before the indigenous peoples. To this day, the lore that surrounds sidhe mounds in Ireland protects them. It’s believed that if one disrupts the mounds, something tragic (often death or insanity) will befall that person. In a way, this is a very convenient way to protect and preserve ancient sites! I like to imagine that the lore of the Tuatha de Dannan represents the people that did build these sites. It makes sense then that there would be no mention of the winter solstice connection because to actually go into these mounds would be tempting fate!
In John Gregorson Campbell’s “The Gaelic Otherworld : Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and Second sight in the Highlands and Islands” (collected over the course of the 19th century) – he briefly mentions Féill Fionnain or St. Finan’s eve which is observed on the longest night of the year in the Highlands of Scotland. He gives us a glimpse into this festival stating that it was believed that on this night “the rain is wine and the stones are cheese.” A man even recounts catching the rain in hopes that it would be wine! Sadly, much seems to be lost of these past traditions due to the degradation of a traditional lifestyle and language. Even he in the mid 19th century states that it was celebrated in “olden days.”
Similarly, I did find a German custom practiced here in Corkum’s Island, Nova Scotia that stated on Christmas Eve, no one would go to their well after dark because the well water would turn to wine. This makes me laugh because it shows a clear contrast between our Catholic Highland relatives who were trying to catch the wine and our protestant German relatives here who would not go out because of it! Throughout much of Nova Scotia in the 19th century and likely much earlier, there was a strong belief that at this time of year the oxen would speak to each other in the night. It also seemed to be a sign of great foreboding if they were overheard, thus keeping people inside as well! (Both of these bits of lore are in Helen Creighton’s “Bluenose Magic: Popular Believes and Superstitions in Nova Scotia” 1968). It makes sense to me that there would be lore in order to keep people from going out on the longest nights of the year. A time that so symbolically marked both the death and rebirth of the sun. One could so easily get lost out there, a little too tipsy from all that free wine… 😀
And so! It will be dark in a couple of hours. I am just sitting listening to some medieval chants with books piled up around me and feeling as lazy as Henry looks right now. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year – so Jamie and I decided to be as lazy as possible before the rush of the next couple of days. The sun is already shining into the South-West of our house, for a few more hours.
A very Merry Holiday Season to you!
I would love to hear any Solstice Lore from other regions! I also really enjoy doing a little bit of research so if you have any suggested topics for me to delve into a little deeper, do let me know! My main interest is and always has been fairy lore (those that live in the mounds, the stones, the streams, mischievous creatures).