by Katy Harrison
“As he spoke, he paused before a great mound grown over with trees, and around it silver clear in the moonlight were immense stones piled, the remains of an original circle, and there was a dark, low, narrow entrance leading therein. “This was my palace. In days past many a one plucked here the purple flower of magic and the fruit of the tree of life…’ and even as he spoke, a light began to glow and to prevade the cave…”
A.E. (George Russell) writing about Newgrange in 1897.
When I was a little girl I remember my father bringing my brother, my sister and me to Newgrange. He had just been working for years on the exhibition centre there–Ireland’s most famous prehistoric monument and a World Heritage Site. He showed us beautiful images of the winter solstice sun weaving its way through the ancient passageway to the sacred tomb. And although, only a child at the time and knowing I would never be allowed into the tomb for the solstice—unless I won the Newgrange lottery of course, an improbable feat given my track record with winning prizes—I could feel the passion and love for this place through my father. And even in the innocence of childhood I knew there was something profound and special not only about Newgrange but also about the Winter Solstice.
Celebrated each year around December 21st (December 22nd for 2023) the Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. With deep roots in Celtic tradition and Irish folklore, the Winter Solstice is a time of hope, signalling the end of darkness and the return of light. The word Solstice is derived from the Latin word sōlstitium which translates as Sun-stop or Sun-still.
The Winter Solstice is deeply integrated into Irish folklore and mythology. As a daughter of a folklorist, I grew up listening to stories of faeries and Celts. The Celts, closely attuned to the land and the changing seasons, celebrated Winter Solstice as a shining light that let them know that they were nearing the turning part of the year when the slide towards darkness would come to an end and the lighter part of the year would return. It was a beacon of hope and new life.
We know the celebration of the Winter Solstice much predated the Celts. According to ancient mythology the Tuatha Dé Danann, who once ruled Ireland, were said to have built Newgrange as a burial place for their chief, the Daghda Mór, and his three sons. In a version of the story, the Daghda sent Elcmar (Boann’s husband) away on an errand, and while he is absent the Daghda seduces Boann, who becomes pregnant. So that Elcmar will not discover their affair, the Daghda, causes the sun to remain at a standstill for nine months so that outside Newgrange only a day had passed. The divine child, Aonghus is born on the same day he is conceived in the great chamber of Newgrange. He grew up to become the god of love of the Túatha Dé Danann and is always associated with birds, especially swans.
The Winter Solstice is a time of re-awakening and returning to the light and it invites us to prepare for spring. It is an opportunity for a simple yet profound observation of the stillness between the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next. This is a time to reflect and a perfect time to set intentions for the next cycle of life. It is a time to dive deep, celebrate and refocus our direction for the season to come. In yoga, Winter Solstice practices usually include Sun-salutations, restorative poses and hip openers.
You can celebrate the Winter Solstice by turning inward, awakening your inner fire and setting your intentions for the next cycle. Here are some ideas you could try.
– Get cosy beside a fire—bonfires were traditional in Ireland at the Winter Solstice–—grab some blankets, or wooly socks and jumpers; make your favourite cup of herbal tea or cacao; light some incense and some candles and get a piece of paper and pen. Close your eyes, connect to the Earth’s energy and reflect on the year gone by asking yourself these questions—what can you let go of that no longer serves you? What inspires you? What are your hopes and dreams for the year ahead? (Dream Big!) Open your eyes, write down whatever comes to you—When you are finished throw your musings into the fire, and let the energy of the Earth carry them into the universe.
-Go out and watch the Solstice sunrise—one of the most important parts of the ancient Celt’s celebrations— a new day, new light and new hope.
-Simply get out into nature for a walk and breathe in the anticipation of new beginnings and new dreams.
As a Christmas baby, I have always loved this time of year with the Christmas lights and songs, markets and love everywhere but I also know a lot of emotion can come with it, and sometimes grief or pain. So this year let us reach out and squeeze our loved ones extra tight and look forward to a bright future filled with love, health and dreams.