December 21st marks the winter solstice or the shortest day of the year. The word solstice means “standstill”. For every year, around this time, the sun appears to rise and set low on the horizon in the same place for a few days. It is the time of the longest night, when earth’s very life force seems to falter in the face of the overpowering cold and dark. Then, barely noticeable at first, the sun begins its long journey towards the opposite pole, and all of creation seems to exhale as a new cycle of life begins once more.
Long before the festivities were Christianized in the 4th century, human cultures around the world hailed this time of year with traditions that celebrated the “rebirth” of the sun out of the impending darkness. April and I had an opportunity to experience such traditions when we visited the Neolithic site of Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland a few years ago. This huge passage tomb as archaeologists call it, was built out of large stones some 5,000 years ago by pre-Celtic farmers. The site predates the more famous Stonehenge in England by a 1,000 years and the Egyptian pyramids by 400 years.
The burial chamber was intended to house their departed loved ones but also to honor them by marking the return of the sun each midwinter. Constructed on a slight grade, the main passage remains in complete darkness throughout the year until the exact moment of dawn on the winter solstice when a beam of sunlight travels through the perfectly aligned “roof box” above the entrance. As the rays fill the passage, they illuminate the cruciform chamber some seventy-two feet within the structure.
To the early farmers that created Newgrange, the rebirth of the sun was an important moment as it signaled the increasing daylight to come and the beginning of another agricultural year. In due time, the soil will warm, seed will need to be planted and another harvest will be enjoyed.
The fact that for over five millennia now Newgrange can still be lit by the rising sun on winter solstice, attests to the sophistication of its builders and what they held with reverence. For us gardeners in modern times, places like Newgrange and the sun’s return on December 21st, reassures us and gives us hope. The renewal and excitement of spring will come again. Another season tending our gardens with come again. Beholding the miracle of life that derives from working soil will come again. The good times will come again.