The Winter Solstice Holiday – This Most Special Time of the Year, by E.M. Storm-Smith

The Winter Solstice Holiday – This Most Special Time of the Year, by E.M. Storm-Smith

Hello friends! As this is my first December post with the Austen Authors, I thought I would take this moment to give you a glimpse of myself and my fascination with the Winter Solstice. Most everyone loves this time of year regardless of your religious traditions. It seems almost ingrained in the human experience to love the cold and dark days at the end of December (at least for the approximately 88% of us who live in the northern hemisphere). It’s a time for family, giving gifts, and celebrating the passage of time.

For me personally, it’s also the time of year I celebrate my birthday. I was born on the Winter Solstice. When I was young, my mother said I was born on the darkest day of the year to bring it some sunshine. Though I grew up in a pretty traditional US protestant christian household, the day of my birth and the ancient traditions surrounding the solstice have always held some fascination for me. As I’ve grown up, I still observe many of the modern Christian traditions with my family, but I also love to talk about and teach my son the older beliefs.

There are literally hundreds of books, blogs, historical academic texts, and History Channel specials dedicated to the ancient winter celebrations. So instead of going into detail about the ancients housing the tree spirits during midwinter celebrations (Christmas trees and wreaths) or the pagan sky spirits who flew around the world chasing the sun (a precursor to Santa), I’d like to talk about the things that most fascinate me – Winter Solstice Monuments.

There are thousands of ancient structures dedicated to the movements of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies littered across our little blue rock, but some of the most impressive, and massive, are those dedicated to the position or the sun on the Winter Solstice.

Probably the most well-known is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Built between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE, the megalith arrangement of rocks comes to life during twilight on the days surrounding the Winter Solstice. As the sun sets, the dying rays align the Alter Stone and the Slaughter Stone together in a stunning band of light. This phenomenon has been happening every year, at the same time in our rotation around the sun, for at least 5,000 years. We do not know for sure what spiritual significance this held for our ancestors, but there is no denying that the people who lived thousands of years ago held as much reverence for the winter solstice as we do today. Even before the stones were erected, archeologists have discovered certain features dating to the Mesolithic period, approximately 8,000 BCE, which suggest the site has been used as a lunar calendar and as part of midwinter celebrations for more than 10,000 years.

English people have been writing about Stonehenge for nearly as far back as our history books can look. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ written in 1136, advanced the idea that the wizard Merlin built Stonehenge, an idea which persisted until the 16th century. The modern sensibility of visiting the site (and many other historical locals – Tintern Abbey anyone) for pleasure started in the mid 18th century. I could not find any record of Jane Austen writing about a trip to Stonehenge, however, its convenient location to Bath and popularity during the years in which she lived there might suggest that she had seen the monolith at some time in her life. As a fellow mid-December baby, close enough to the winter solstice to be part of the celebration, I like to imagine that she would have shared my fascination with all these things.

Slightly less well known, but just as impressive and even a tad older, is Newgrange in Meath, Ireland. This massive structure is a passage tomb built during the Neolithic period and finished around 3,200 BCE. While the exact significance of the site is still unknown, there are carefully buried human remains inside the inner sanctum that suggests religious significance. The burial chamber is deep within the structure and there is no light from the outside world except for a precious few days a year. At sunrise on the days surrounding the winter solstice, the sunshine comes through the roofbox at the entrance and floods the burial chamber with light. Due to the age and condition of the site, only 20 or so people can go into the burial chamber at any one time, so every year a very select 80-100 people are privileged to see the phenomenon. There’s a lottery system each year for who can come into the chamber hosted by the Irish Office of Public Works at the Brú Ná Bóinne visitors center. I have been privileged to visit Newgrange once in my life, not on a solstice day, but it was still an amazing place to visit. Hopefully, some time I will have the luck to get a ticket to see the solstice the way it was seen by the ancient people of Ireland.

 

Another famous winter solstice complex that I have also had the privilege of visiting, this one in the new world, is the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico. During the solstice days, the sun rises along the edge of the main pyramid as if walking up the stairs. Also, on the spring and fall equinox, visitors can see the light and shadows align to create the shape of the serpent god, Kukulcán, crawling down the steps. There is still debate about the importance of the orientation and sun’s role in the Mayan religion, but there is no denying that the building was built to mark some connection between Kukulcán and the sun’s changing of the seasons.

 

The final monument I want to highlight is the Karnak Temple, the sanctuary of the ancient Egyptian god, Amun Ra (the sun god), in Luxor, Egypt. The holiest day in the ancient sun religion, Amun Ra’s holy of holies, is the winter solstice. For approximately 20 minutes at sunrise on the solstice, the sun’s rays penetrate the temple and the massive length of the complex. The complex is the second most visited historical site in Egypt after the great pyramids at Giza. It was built between the reign of Senusret I in the Middle Kingdom (approximately 2,000 BCE) and finished somewhere during the Ptolemaic Kingdom (305–30 BCE). So, for about 2,000 years, the ancient Egyptians worshiped and built monuments to the god of the sun. Thousands of visitors come to Karnak Temple every year to see the sun ascend onto its Throne at the apex of the complex. Most impressive is the view from inside the temple where the sun’s rays come perfectly through the giant pillars to illuminate the inter sanctum of the gods.

There are thousands more examples from all around the world, but we don’t have time to look at them all. The thing I find most impressive is that each of these monuments came from a wholly different culture. The peoples of Stonehenge and Newgrange may have had some shared culture, but they are both from a pre-historic tradition and would not have had contact with each other during the time the monuments were constructed. All of these monuments were laid out, planned, and completed independent from any outside influence. It was purely the magic of the time of year when the sun moves low in the sky and the air gets cold.

It’s this shared human experience that I like to think about on the days surrounding my birthday. The shared knowledge that time passes and our lives are short, but we are all connected to each other. That the sun touches us all the same.

Whether you say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Hanukkah Sameach, Eid Mubarak, Blessed Yule, or Bah Humbug, I hope you and yours enjoy this time of renewal and celebration.

Many happy returns for a safe and prosperous new year.

 

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8 COMMENTS
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Glynis
Glynis
December 28, 2021 2:28 PM

Totally fascinating thank you. There was a programme on TV a few weeks ago about Stonehenge showing that there was a settlement of approximately 5000 small homes nearby and some symmetrical pits in a circle. They also found where the stones came from.

DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
December 23, 2021 9:09 AM

Interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 22, 2021 10:39 AM

I have always been impressed with the stories behind these locations. I’ve wondered how on earth did they move and position these massive stones and with such precision as to orientation to the coordinates of the son. It always boggles my mind. If anything went wrong, they had to wait another year in order to get it right. This was an amazing and fascinating post. Thanks for sharing with us. Oh, and happy belated birthday.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
December 27, 2021 5:51 PM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

SUN, not son… autocorrect or something… gremlins maybe. Good grief.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
December 22, 2021 10:30 AM

Great post! I never knew so much about the Winter Solstice! Beautiful pics too! Merry Christmas!

Colin Rowland
AuAu
December 22, 2021 9:24 AM

The winter solstice is my favorite day of the year, not because of anything to do with religion or pagan rituals. My reason is a selfish one. To me, it means that the sunlight from this point on grows every day. It might only be for a minute or three each day, but that is enough to lift my spirits in anticipation of the warmth of spring.
For the same reason, the summer solstice is my least favorite day of the year. I find it a touch depressing that as the earth gets closer to the sun, the length of each day shortens until winter is once again slapping us around.
I’ve felt this way for years, and the only time in my memory when this didn’t happen was when we lived in Hawaii, because the length of the days is pretty much the same all year.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
December 22, 2021 7:29 AM

Thanks for this fascinating article! This time of year is special for so many reasons to many of us, and winter solstice is a great one to select to write about!

Riana Everly
AuAu
December 22, 2021 7:21 AM

Bah Humbug! LOL That was a great laugh to start the morning. 🙂
What a great post. I also am fascinated with the winter solstice, more than the summer, for some reason. I haven’t been to Stonehenge on solstice, but just being there on a random afternoon in August (mumble) years ago was an incredible experience.
To you and yours as well, Happy Everything, and Happy Birthday too.

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