In astronomical terms, the Winter Solstice (20-23 December) is the single moment when the sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky (or its northernmost point if you are in the southern hemisphere). Solstice means ‘sun stands still’, and for three days at this time the sun appears to rise and set in the same southeasterly position on the horizon, before beginning its gradual incline north once more.
It is a spiritual event as much as an astronomical one, calling in the rebirth of the year, as the day on which the Winter Solstice occurs is the shortest of the year, and the night the longest. From now on the sun will gradually arc higher and higher in the sky until it comes to another standstill at the Summer Solstice, on the longest day of the year, when it rises in the northeast.
The Winter Solstice has been of deep spiritual significance since the Neolithic era and was marked by the stone circles and rows, passage tombs and temples left by the first farmers ever to till the rich earth. There are a number of sites aligned to to the rising or setting of the sun in the United Kingdom and Ireland: the ancient monuments at Maeshowe on Orkney, Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Newgrange in County Meath.
Newgrange, also known as Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne), is a majestic structure dating from 3200 BCE. This circular cairn or passage tomb has an exterior of white quartz and rounded granite boulders, and its impressive entrance stone is famously carved with intricate spiral designs, referring perhaps to the wheel of the seasons or the journey through life, death and rebirth. Its entrance also includes a small roof box through which the first rays of the Winter Solstice sunrise penetrate the deepest recesses of the tomb and illuminate the triple spiral carved on its back chamber.
In the Celtic calendar, the Winter Solstice is a time of stillness and rebirth, when the wheel of the seasons completes its turning, only to begin again. At this time of year, I like to light candles in the early morning hours and spend some time reflecting. What are the seeds of intention that I wish to plant? What are my hopes, dreams and aspirations? How can I be of service? This is a quiet, inward time. It is a wonderful opportunity to slow down, express gratitude, and cultivate focus for the year ahead.
*Passages quoted from The Magical Year by Danu Forest.