Dr. Karen Ward, of the Slí An Chroí Irish Celtic School of Shamanism,  on the history of the evolution of our ancestor’s celebrations on winter solstice.

Dublin: The winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This happens when one of the Earth's poles has its maximum slant away from the sun and happens twice in each hemisphere at the peak of winter and summer. Both the solstices, the seasons, and the changing length of daylight hours throughout the year are all due to the simple fact that the Earth spins on a tilted axis. At its farthest southerly point, having moved slowly since last June’s summer solstice, the sun ‘stops’ for approximately three days before it starts to slowly creep back north again. During this time there is a peak moment, a point in time, of the solstice. This year, 2022, it occured at 15.59pm UTC and 10.59 EST, on Dec 21. 

In the Celtic landscapes, the winter solstice is an ancient seasonal rite of passage that is ageless. We do know not when our ancestors first stood together and paused in harmony at midwinter. Irish sacred sites such as the world-famous Newgrange cairn, aligned to the morning’s rising sun tell us that over 5,000 years ago, the winter solstice was important enough to build a temple to this poignant solar event. In Irish Gaelic, solstice is ‘grianstad’ (Gree-ann-stad), literally translating as ‘sunstop’.

This accuracy in describing the sun’s alignment with the Earth helps us to also momentarily stop and integrate our fast-moving modern lives with this plateau of maximum darkness and minimum light. These days of winter solstice time are precious, the pinnacle of a darkening that calls us to rest, be still, recover and dream. The minutes of sunlight in our days will eventually begin to increase on that other great day of the festive season - Christmas Day - Dec 25.

The experience of darkness is such a different condition to light and is often sadly stigmatised. We are so accustomed to beginning things when the light is turned on, when the sun rises, when we open our eyes and adjust. Yet nature says that beginnings are in the dark.  Life first is dreamed and vibrates in the absence of light. The seeds sown in autumn germinate underground through winter before appearing as shoots in spring. Each one of us lived our first nine months or thereabouts in our mother's dark womb.

Our ancestors understood this phenomenon intuitively, acknowledging the new day at dusk and the New Year at Samhain (Hallow'een) regarding the climax of the seasonal darkness of winter solstice as the treasured dreamtime of new life. Nature invites us to become courageous and passionate dreamers in synchronicity with the great natural hibernation about us. Our invitation is to birth new prayers, new wishes, new intentions and new manifestations for ourselves and for our world. 

In many traditions, winter solstice, also known as midwinter and the festival of yule, is a time for rituals and celebrations. On the island of Ireland, our ancestors who built Newgrange saw winter solstice as a turning point in which reverence of the vital energies of darkness and lightness were understood, honored and celebrated. 

Today many still gather at Newgrange on winter solstice morn to sing and dance or simply stand in awe as, if skies are clear, the golden orb of the sun peaks above ‘Red Hill’. Many around the world watched the live stream from inside the cairn at sunrise 8.36am UTC, 3.36 EST, on Dec 21, and witnessed the sunlight snaking its way through the lightbox up the ancient path to penetrate the centre of this stunning architectural monument. That this still occurs 5,000 years after Newgrange was built is itself an enthralling phenomenon.

The shortest day of the year had only nine hours and 15 minutes of daylight and so Dec 21 was spent mostly in darkness. This year, the solstice arrives two days after the ‘Long Night’ full moon, so grandmother moon, as our foremothers and fathers called her, will be waning gibbous lighting the dark sky.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, stop, like the sun, and celebrate the hope in your heart as we now know that soon the summer will be on its way. 

* Dr. Karen Ward is co-founder and director of the Slí An Chroí Irish Celtic School of Shamanism. For more information follow them on Facebook or visit www.slianchroi.ie or  www.pathwayoftheheart.ie.

Below watch Slí An Chroí Irish Celtic School of Shamanism's online winter solstice ceremony:

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