WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

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Last year on this very date, I wrote a post about the winter/hibernal solstice and how people have celebrated it through the ages. As the basics of that haven’t changed I’ve decided to reblog the post for anyone interested to glance at.

The solstice happens at the same moment for everyone worldwide. It occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly point (23.5 degrees: over the Tropic of Capricorn). Naturally this makes climatic conditions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres very different at that time and the celebrations vary accordingly.

This year, 2017, the winter solstice occurs on Wednesday, December 21 at 10.44 GMT. (As I write this, the time here in the UK is exactly that!) This means that at ancient sites like Stonehenge, as well as many other venues worldwide, people will be gathering on Wednesday evening/night to wait for the sunrise the following morning. Having visited Stonehenge for the first time in early May, and written a post about the site, I can understand the enormity of its appeal as a venue for both the winter and summer solstices. It’s simply mystical and awe-inspiring.

I won’t say anything else or I’ll be duplicating what’s in the post. So here it is…

Millie Thom

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere over Asia

The word solstice comes from the Latin word, solstitium, which means ‘Sun standing still’. The December solstice is the day on which the Sun is at its most southerly point, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, before it reverses its direction and gradually starts to move north again.  The image above shows the winter solstice in the Northen Hemisphere over Asia.  (Author: Jecowa at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons).

To people in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice means the longest night, with the latest dawn and shortest day of the year, with the sun at its lowest point in the sky. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, as we head towards the summer solstice on June 21st 2016.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere the opposite is true: people will experience the shortest night and the earliest dawn, with the longest…

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The Midsummer Festival

In the Northern Hemisphere, the festival of Midsummer is traditionally celebrated at the time of the summer solstice, generally thought of a being on June 21st, though it can fall at any time between the 21st and 22nd, depending on the time zone you’re in. (Note that in the Southern Hemisphere, the June solstice is the Winter Solstice.)

The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin solsitium, or ‘sun stands still’ – the day when the sun appears to stand still as it reaches its highest point in the sky, an illusion which occurs because the Earth’s axis is tilted as far as it goes toward the sun on that day.

The Earth at the start of the four (astronomical) seasons, as seen from the north. Earth is far left at the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, far right for the southern hemisphere.
The Earth at the start of the four (astronomical) seasons, as seen from the north. Earth is far left at the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, far right for the southern hemisphere. Author: Tau’olunga. Public Domain

In ancient times, the festival associated with the summer solstice was primarily a Celtic fire festival, representing the shortening days as they gradually headed back towards winter. The ancient ceremonies revolved around beliefs in the power of the sun, which was often revered as the sun god. People would flock to join in with the all-night festivities whilst awaiting the first light of dawn. Midsummer bonfires were lit in the belief that they would add strength to the sun’s energy. In some areas of Scotland, Midsummer fires were still being lit in the countryside well into the 18th century.

At Stonehenge, the sun rises over the ‘Heel Stone’ and is framed by the great trilithon stones of the main entrance. These pictures from my Stonehenge post show the Heel Stone and trilathons (megalithic structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel).

This diagram below shows the alignment of the sun’s rays through the Heel Stone, which can be seen outside of the circle at the bottom:

Shortly after stones erected an earthwork was built around it. 2

The Christian Church designated June 24th as the feast day of St John the Baptist, and in the U.K, from the 13th century onwards, Midsummer’s Eve became known as Saint John’s Eve, though it was still celebrated by feasting and merrymaking, and the lighting of great bonfires. St John’s Wort was traditionally gathered on this day as it was thought to be imbued with the power of the sun, and several other plants were also thought to be more potent at this time. Such flowers would be placed beneath pillows in the hope of wonderful dreams, particularly about future lovers.

St John's Wort. Author: Michael H Lemmer. Creative Commons
St John’s Wort. Author: Michael H Lemmer. Creative Commons

Like that of many festivals, St John’s Eve was seen as a time when the veil between this world and the next thinned and powerful forces were free to wander. Careful watch was kept during the night and it was said that if you spent a night at a sacred site during Midsummer Eve, you would gain the powers of a bard (poet). But, it was also thought that people could end up totally mad, dead, or be spirited away by the fairies. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is based on the idea that fairies were about and at their most powerful on this night.

The summer solstice is still important to pagans today, and many of them celebrate it at great sites like Stonehenge and Avebury. Some head for other stone circles and ancient monuments or hold small ceremonies in open spaces … everywhere from gardens to woodlands. For witches the solstice forms one of the lesser sabbats – or sections of the wheel of the year – their main festivals being Beltane and Samhain.

Stonehenge is always the most popular site at both the summer and winter solstice, and there are several videos on YouTube for anyone interested. This video gives a very brief look at the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge in 2015. I haven’t added the actual video to my post because I’ve no idea about copyright – and I really don’t fancy a massive fine!

http://www.onenewspage.com/video/20150621/3003464/Summer-solstice-Spectacular-sunrise-at-Stonehenge.htm

Though many of the original traditions no longer exist, some were brought back during the 20th century. Midsummer bonfires are still lit on some high hills in Cornwall, a tradition that was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in the early 20th century.

Traditional Cornish hilltop bonfire on Midsummer Eve, 2009. Author: Talskiddy at en.wikipedia. Creative Commons
Traditional Cornish hilltop bonfire on Midsummer Eve, 2009. Author: Talskiddy at en.wikipedia. Creative Commons

Naturally, different countries have their own traditions, and this post would go on forever if I attempted to work through them all. The many Midsummer celebrations held in the United States are mostly derived from the cultures of immigrants who arrived from various European nations since the 19th century.

I’ll finish with a quick word about Scandinavia, where the festival of Midsummer is celebrated as much as Christmas. In Sweden, it is a national holiday called Midsommar. Houses are decorated inside and out with wreaths and flowers and people then dance around a decorated midsummer pole while listening to traditional folk songs known to all. As in many other countries, the Midsummer festivities include bonfires and divining the future, especially one’s future partner or spouse.

Midsummer celebrations at Årsnäs, started in 1963 at an international community on the west coast of Sweden, near Kode. Date: June, 1969. Family photo of Karim Aasma and Felix Aasma. Uploaded by Mikael Haggsstron. Creative Commons
Midsummer celebrations at Årsnäs, started in 1963 at an international community on the west coast of Sweden, near Kode. Date: June, 1969. Family photo of Karim Aasma and Felix Aasma. Uploaded by Mikael Haggsstron. Creative Commons

Refs.
Mysterious Britain and Ireland
Wikipedia
BBC
The Midsumme.co.uk
Office Holidays
Time: Summer Solstice

Stonehenge

Plan of Stonehenge (Visitor Centre) 3

During our stay in Somerset two weeks ago we also visited  sites in neighbouring Dorset and Wiltshire. One of those sites was Stonehenge in Wiltshire, one of the most well known monuments in the world. We’ve passed by ‘the stones’ a few times as we’ve driven along the A303 and glimpsed them from a distance, but being close up to them is quite something else. The picture above is one from inside the Visitor Centre, showing Stonehenge as it is today.

Stonehenge is located in the county of Wiltshire, two miles west of the town of Amesbury and eight miles north of the city of Salisbury.

Approximate location of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK

The monument and its surroundings became a UNESCO world Heritage site in 1986. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage. The surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. But Stonehenge isn’t the only ancient site in the area. This stone circle itself is part of a group of late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, including the timber monuments of Durrington, the small henge at Amesbury and the timber circle at Woodhenge. There are also several hundred barrows (burial mounds) in the area. In addition, 25 miles north of Stonehenge is the Avebury complex – argued to be the most impressive of all remaining prehistoric earthworks in Europe.

The first thing we see as we pull into the car park is the new Visitor Centre, opened in December 2013.

Inside the building is a café, which was busy even on a Tuesday – and a school day at that. There is also a display area about the monument and the Salisbury Plain region in general, with information about the people who inhabited it during the period of Stonehenge’s construction. Artefacts included flint tools and animal bones (mostly cattle) and antler picks. There were also metal items from the later Bronze Age and a display about how the site has been used and interpreted by ‘tourists’ from the mid 18th century to the present day:

There is lots of illustrated information about the three main phases of construction of Stonehenge (as in the models below) as well as reconstructions and artists impressions of other nearby ancient sites.

The first model above (left) shows the first major construction on the site, 5000 years ago, during the late Neolithic/New Stone Age. It was a circular enclosure with a ring of fifty-six pits which probably held upright pillars. Whether the pillars were wood or stone isn’t certain but it is likely there were some wooden ones in the enclosure. The chalk and earth from the enclosing ditch was used to make a large inner and smaller outer bank.

Five hundred years after the enclosure was built (middle picture) enormous sarsen stones were raised in the shape of an inner horseshoe and a surrounding circle, with smaller bluestones between them. The stones were aligned on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. The huge sarsens were brought from 20 miles away, in north Wiltshire and the bluestones from several sites in Wales – some 140 miles away! Construction and alteration stretched over a period of 800 years, into the Bronze Age, by which time Stonehenge had become the greatest temple in Britain.

Shortly after the stones were erected, an earthwork was built, creating the Avenue (model above far right) leading to the entrance and the bluestones were rearranged. And that is how this great monument stayed for the following 4000 years. But destruction and decay took their toll and the following model shows what Stonehenge looked like in 1740, when the first accurate plans were drawn:

A ruined temple - 4000 years of destruction and decay. Stonehenge around 1740. 2

Many stones would have fallen naturally, others removed from the site for building material by local people. Visitors carved their names on stones and chipped off pieces as souvenirs. In 1908 a stone of the sarsen circle fell, leading to the first restoration project when the tallest stone, leaning dangerously, was set upright. Work continued and between 1959 – 64, all the stones that had fallen since 1740 had been re-erected and many others set in concrete.

The stone circle itself is approximately a mile and a half from the Visitor Centre. We decided to walk, but for anyone who would prefer not to, regular buses run back and forth – leaving roughly every five minutes. The site gets a lot of visitors and the buses are nearly all full, even mid-week. It’s a pleasant walk, either straight along the lane or across the fields. There are also things to see along the way. Right outside the Visitor Centre is a model showing one way in which the sarsen stones (which have an average weight of 25 tons) could have been moved:

Moving the Stones
The stone is secured to a wooden sledge which would have been pulled along over rollers or on rails. The ropes were probably made from lime ‘blast’ – inner bark – spun and twisted to form strong cord

There is also a reconstruction of part of Durrington village as it might have looked at the time of Stonehenge’s construction:

After a walk across the fields we reached the stones. Access into the circle itself is only possible on certain days but we were happy to just walk around it. The route takes us anticlockwise, so my photos bring us to the main entrance last:

The reasons for WHY Stonehenge was built has been the most difficult one for archaeologists to answer, but it’s generally accepted that the monument was built as a temple: a place of ceremony, burial and celebration.

Stonehenge has an axis that runs north-east to south-west, and was chosen because it reflects events in the annual movements of the sun and moon. The entrance faces the rising sun on the day of the summer solstice. The Avenue is also aligned with the winter solstice sunset.

That Stonehenge served as a solar calendar and marked the changing seasons is a plausible hypothesis. People of that time were dependent on the weather for the success of their crops and animals. During the cold, dark winter days they would long for the sun to return with his light and warmth – and at the winter solstice, they celebrated the fact that the sun would be doing just that. The number of pig bones found on the site have been offered as evidence of mid-winter feasts here, to celebrate this turning point.

Stonehenge as a place of burial is supported by the hundreds of human bones found at the site which show signs of cremation before burial. And of course, it has often been thought that Stonehenge was a place of sacrifice, notably human. One fallen sarsen stone in the main entrance to the Stonehenge enclosure has become known as the ‘Slaughter Stone’. This is because of the shallow indentations that fill with rainwater which reacts with iron in the stone and turns a rusty red. The guide book attributes the given name to the ‘over active Victorian imagination’.

Another idea put forward is that the bluestones were transported all the way from Wales because people there told of their healing powers.

So all in all, theories as to the purpose of Stonehenge are still being bandied about. One source suggests that Stonehenge can (perhaps) be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral, such as nearby Salisbury – built  for worshipping, but also as a place where people could find healing and hope and important people could be buried.

WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere over Asia

The word solstice comes from the Latin word, solstitium, which means ‘Sun standing still’. The December solstice is the day on which the Sun is at its most southerly point, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, before it reverses its direction and gradually starts to move north again.  The image above shows the winter solstice in the Northen Hemisphere over Asia.  (Author: Jecowa at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons).

To people in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice means the longest night, with the latest dawn and shortest day of the year, with the sun at its lowest point in the sky. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, as we head towards the summer solstice on June 21st 2016.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere the opposite is true: people will experience the shortest night and the earliest dawn, with the longest day and the sun at its highest point in the sky.

The December solstice happens at the same time everywhere on Earth. This year it is on Tuesday, December 22nd (today!) at 04:49 GMT/Universal time. At Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, UK, the sun rose this morning at 08:04. The time is different every year, and can be between December 20th and 23rd, although it’s rarely on the two extremes.  The last time it was on December 23rd was in 1903, which will not happen again until 2303.

Interpretations of the winter solstice have varied worldwide and across cultures, but many have involved the recognition of  the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest time of year. As such, it has been celebrated with holidays, gatherings, festivals and rituals around that time. Many of these celebrations have been observed since the earliest times.

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK (constructed  from 3000-2000 BC) is aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset . . . 

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.
Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.

. . . in comparison to the Newgrange prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, which points to the winter solstice sunrise:

Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons
Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons

Then there is the Goseck circle in Germany, which is aligned to both sunset and sunrise:

Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain
Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain

It is believed that the winter solstice was more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. The winter solstice was a time when cattle were slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed throughout the winter, and most of the wine and beer was finally fermented by then, and could be enjoyed.

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with a festival called Saturnalia. This began on December 17th and lasted for seven days. Saturnalian banquets were held as far back as 217 BCE to honour Saturn, the father of the gods. It began with  a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman forum, followed by a public banquet, a private gift giving and continuous partying!

The carnival overturned Roman social norms, being more like a free-for-all, when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored; colourful clothes replaced the formal togas. Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted and slaves were served by their masters. All grudges and quarrels were forgotten (but were they suddenly remembered again afterwards, I ask?).

Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain
Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain

At the gift giving (December 19th) it was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit – a symbol of fertility. Dolls were given, which were symbolic of human sacrifice, and so were candles – a reminder of the bonfires associated with pagan solstice celebrations. The whole festival would become a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime:

Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons
Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons

In the Norse lands of pre-Christian Scandinavia, the winter solstice was celebrated with the feast of Jul (or jól), from which we get the terms Yule and Yuletide. Yule is what later evolved into today’s Christmas, though the Danes still call it Jul. The Danish Vikings sacrificed and offered up goods and animals to the gods in order to conquer the darkness of winter. Then they drank a toast for the year and for peace. The toast was very important and a beaker of beer was offered to the gods. Then the people would toast and drink and thank each other and the gods for the past year and welcome in the new.

People would light fires to symbolise the heat and light of the returning sun and a Jul /Yule log was brought in and dropped in the hearth as a tribute the god Thor. The Yule log was often an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony and sometimes, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.

shutterstock_739285
Image from Shutterstock

I wrote a short post about the Yule log last December, with a brief paragraph from Shadow of the Raven describing the Yule celebrations. It can be found here.

The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been stored away and, later on, in Christian times, was often fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. The log was burned until nothing but ash remained, then the ashes were collected and either strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine. A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.

These are just three of the ways in which peoples of the past celebrated the winter solstice. There are many others from different times and cultures, but I can’t do them all. There’s only a couple of hours left of December 22nd, 2015, here in the UK, so the shortest day has almost been and gone . . .

All I can say is that it was incredibly short!