The end of December is a busy, bustling time in Ireland. The run up to Christmas is full of shopping, children’s performances, panto shows, work parties and family get togethers. The day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s Day. The traditional hunting of the wren has evolved into a day where people raise funds for charities, much to the relief of the wrens no doubt. It’s also a day when families visit and enjoy the Christmas dinner leftovers. After that comes Women’s Christmas, aka Little Christmas, aka Epiphany, on January 6th. But just before those 12 days of Christmas, a much older spectacle unfolds. Winter Solstice was a major event in pre-Christian Ireland, and despite the energy devoted to preparing for Christmas, it has not been forgotten. Perhaps the ability to embrace Christian and pagan traditions at the same time is one of our Irish gifts, or perhaps the dark days of December have something to do with it.
This year Winter Solstice is on December 22nd, although most years it is on the 21st. This is the shortest day in the year, and after it the daylight hours stretch out slightly longer every day. Ireland is more than 3,600 miles north of the equator, with Dublin at 53 degrees latitude. Compare that to New York at 40 degrees, Toronto at 43 and Seattle at 48. It’s closer to Moscow at 55 degrees latitude. In short, the winter days are very short. In December, people head off to work in the dark and return home in the dark. On this year’s solstice, the sun won’t rise until 8:36 am and it will set at 4:07 pm. When it is up, the sun mostly behind clouds in the winter. So it is not hard to see why people have always been excited about the winter solstice and the gradual lengthening of daylight hours in Ireland!
Newgrange, Star of Many Irish Gifts
Newgrange is the Neolithic site in County Meath’s Boyne Valley where our ancestors built an incredible structure to mark the winter solstice. Older than the pyramids, the site is now a highlight for many visitors. The triple spiral design featured on so many Irish gifts is a replica of the ancient stone carvings at Newgrange.
We don’t have a full understanding of the original purpose of the mound at Newgrange. It is a passage tomb, but is more than a burial site. It is designed so that as the sun rises on the solstice, it strikes a window above the entrance in such a way as to illuminate the inner chamber. It doesn’t do this on other days. We can only try to imagine how exactly the site was used. Our ancient ancestors weren’t so primitive when it came to engineering and understanding the movement of the sun.
The site is built of massive rocks, and the entrance stones are intricately carved with beautiful swirling designs – including the famous triple spiral seen on so many Irish gifts. The incredible effort put into designing and building Newgrange is a testament to how important the solstice was to the ancient Irish.