Today is the Winter Solstice, or Midwinter, here in the Northern Hemisphere; the shortest day (or, if you prefer, the longest night) of the year.
The word solstice comes from the Latin solstitium, meaning point at which the sun seems to stand still. This meaning was probably inspired more by the Summer Solstice, in which the sun seems to hang around all day, especially up here on the 53rd parallel where it gets dark at about 11.30pm. But at the Winter Solstice, the sun probably seemed to move across the sky far too quickly.
It’s hard to really appreciate the Winter Solstice when you’re in the office until 6pm (my daily dose of sunshine today was from 8am – 8.40am), but still, I think I can feel some of that quiet, solemn depth that led our ancestors to treat this day with such reverence. It had a practical significance, as astronomical calendars were used to guide all manner of aspects of daily life, like farming. But the darkest day of the year, right in the middle of the time of year when people generally weren’t working, saying at home out of the cold, must have set the imagination going. It’s no surprise that so many different cultures marked the occasion in different ways. It’s no coincidence that Christmas is around this time of year, after all.
One of the most fascinating experiences of the Winter Solstice is at Newgrange, a 5,000-year old burial mound in Co. Meath, Ireland. It was specifically designed so that at sunrise on the morning of the Solstice, light enters the main passageway through a small opening, travels along the passageway into the main chamber, where it gradually widens until it illuminates the whole chamber. It’s apparently glorious, though I’ve never seen it in person. Not many have, because access is strictly limited, and you need to apply to see it via a lottery.
It’s hard not to be impressed that people without our modern access to information could measure the movement of celestial objects so accurately, and then use that knowledge to create something beautiful. Whether it’s an ancient burial mound or lights on a Christmas tree, we’ve always sought illumination in the bleak midwinter.