Stonehenge took my breath away—that first glimpse as our van crested a hill, revealing a surprisingly small circle of stones on the Salisbury Plain in southwestern England. All I could say was “Oh!” There were no words to express the simplicity and mystery of this structure, and the deep history it holds.
Our group was en route from London to Glastonbury. There was only time for a quick visit to the restrooms, snack bar, and gift shop. All the other women in the group were drawn to bead bracelets of the famous Bluestone. But I was drawn to a small silver trilithon. Fingers fumbling, I asked for help with the clasp on the chain. The trilithon nestled in the hollow between my collarbones, lending a presence that was larger than its size. Again, all I could say was “Oh!”
For our return trip, a few days later, we were on the road by 4:45 a.m. for our assigned time slot at Stonehenge. Most days, by reservation, small groups are allowed onto the site for fifty minutes before it opens to the public. We witnessed the sunrise in late August, and the massive stones turning from gray, to pink, and back to gray. I felt the palpable energy and mystery of the site and its stones. Then, I learned that on winter solstice, the sun sets directly behind the Great Trilithon, sliding down between the two standing stones. No wonder I was drawn to the little necklace! Winter solstice has long been a special and honored time of year for me.
Another opportunity to experience the effect of solstice on ancient peoples came later at Newgrange, in County Mead, Ireland. This large stone structure is about 5,000 years old—much older than Stonehenge, and even older than the Egyptian pyramids.
Newgrange was built with a small window called a roof box over the main entry, to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on winter solstice. Our group caught a glimpse of what it must have been like for the ancients. We stood in the inner chamber of Newgrange, surrounded by carved stone enclaves. As the lights went out, total darkness wrapped us. I leaned against the stone wall for balance. Then, mimicking the rising sun, a shaft of light made its way down the passageway to rest in the central chamber. It illuminated a stone basin, below intricate carvings of spirals, eye shapes, solar disks, zigzags, and other patterns—including the famous triple spiral. I felt the awe of the place, the blessing of the light cutting through the darkness, and a renewed appreciation for the ancients who were so in tune with the passage of the seasons, and were such skilled stone masons.
Solstice means “standing still sun.” It’s when, because of the earth’s tilt, the northern hemisphere is farthest from the sun. For about three days, the sun appears to stand still at its most southerly point of setting, before it begins its journey northward again. The sun’s arc across the sky is lowest at this time, and the hours of daylight are shortest. This also means that winter solstice has the longest night of the year.
For cultures in tune with the natural world, and dependent upon it for survival, the growing cold and darkness could be a fearful thing. As people turned to farming, attunement to the seasons was critical for planting and harvesting. Those wandering bodies of light in the sky—stars and planets—gave clues to the seasons, and predictability to cycles. But, what if the sun did not come back? Myths and legends grew to explain the growing darkness and eventual return to the light.
Winter solstice is the official beginning of the winter season, even though it occurs in the depth of the cold, and dark part of the year (halfway between fall and spring equinoxes). It’s also called Midwinter’s Day. It is when the spark of new light is rekindled, and gains strength as the sun progresses northward.
Many cultures around the world perform ceremonies to honor the solstice. The spread of Christianity overlaid the Christmas celebration on top of seasonal solstice celebrations, although many of the earlier symbols of solstice were retained in Christmas celebrations—such as Yule logs, evergreens, pine cones, holly and ivy, red, green, and white colors, merry making, exchanging gifts, and feasting.
On a personal level, this is a good time to pause, as the sun does. Pause and reflect on what has gone before. Discern which of those habits, patterns, beliefs, things, and relationships no longer serve their purpose for you, and need to be thanked and laid to rest. Set intentions for what you want to nourish and grow as the sun grows stronger and the days longer.
I love to watch the sun set on winter solstice, and give thanks and prayers for its light and warmth. During this longest night, I light a pillar candle, and put it outside or in a window, where it will burn all night. A spot of light through the long darkness.
What personal rituals do you have to honor the winter solstice?