Winter Solstice is also known as: Yule/Jal (Norse), Christmas (Christian), Deurious (Gaulish) Saturnalia (Roman).
The Moon at Winter Solstice
Similar in scope to Newgrange is Bryn Celli Ddu, Ynys Mon (Anglesey – Brythonic). Steve Burrow, curator of Neolithic archaeology at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales) has proven that Bryn Celli Ddu marked the summer solstice. At midsummer dawn in 2005, Burrow was inside the chamber waiting to see what would happen. “First there is a sparkle through the trees, then the sun rises out, it’s quite exhilarating.” The sun’s rays lit up a quartz-rich stone at the back of the tomb. It was powerful evidence that the passage had been constructed in line with astronomical observations and would also align with the winter solstice as Newgrange does, another one of these sites is Maes Howe (Orkney). At Bryn Celli Ddu, the interpretation of burial chambers as a metaphor for the Earth goddess’s womb becomes all too clear, and is well worth a visit.
Monuments that are aligned to the summer solstice are also aligned to the winter solstice – Bryn Celli Ddu also measures the equinoxes (http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/walesbryncelliddu.htm) the Solstices are probably the oldest seasonal festivals of humankind – universally celebrated by many peoples.
The Sun has been growing weaker and weaker and the daylight hours shorter and shorter until the Winter Solstice arrives; when the Sun is at its weakest and shines for its shortest period. At Solstices the Sun appears to stand still (the word solstice is derived from two Latin words ‘Sol’ – Sun and ‘Sistere’ – to cause to stand still), rising at the same Easterly point on the horizon, taking an identical arc across the sky and setting at the same Westerly point for several days – after which it slowly starts its Journey back, getting stronger, shining for longer and reaching a higher elevation each day.
This is what causes it to be viewed as a time of rebirth; the Sun of the old year has died and at Winter Solstice it is reborn, to grow anew – truly a time for celebration.
Folk-Lore Customs and Traditions
- The Yule Log – a large log known as the Yule log would be burnt on the fire at the Winter Solstice. If the Yule log was kept burning bright for the twelve days that the Sun was thought to stand still for, then it (the Sun) would be persuaded to move again, and make the days grow longer and good fortune would ensue. If a Yule Log went out, then there would be terrible luck. The remains of the log were kept to light the next years log.
- The Holly & The Ivy – Decorating with greenery was a common practice – To our Brythonic ancestors evergreens in winter were symbolic – they provided a home over the cold months for good spirits (fae folk) and the prickly nature of holly protected against the bad ones, so it was the Ivy and holly’s evergreen nature that made it special. They would decorate doorways with it in the hopes that it would capture any bad spirits before they could enter the house, (flypaper for bad fairies?). Traces of evergreen branches have been found in several Neolithic sacred sites as well as the excavations of older private dwellings.
- Mistletoe – was considered to be a sacred plant – It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers.
- Mari Llwyd or “Old Grey Mare’ – The custom still exists in Wales and Cornwall as a tourist attraction on New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. A horse skull is decorated with ribbons, cloth flowers, bottle-glass eyes and trinkets, and carried from house to house while participants sing bawdy songs, tell bad puns, and perform a rambunctious dance. Often a Mari has a skirt for the operator to hide beneath, so that the skull seems animated, and the songs and puns are attributed to the dead horse. Sometimes a candle is burned inside the skull. The procession often culminated at the village tavern. This practice is thought to be historically Pagan and probably originated in ancient times as a tribute to the personification of Death. (Or possibly as laughing in the face of death.)
- Wassailing – Twelfth night (the end of the 12 days of burning the Yule log) was the traditional time that this ceremony took place, and was originally held around the oldest tree in the apple orchard. The first cider crop (made from the apples from the orchard) was poured on the roots of the apple tree to thank the tree spirits for the crop of apples, and to ensure a good harvest next year.
Drumming and bamging sticks would beat away any bad spirits, and the wassail cup would be passed around. Toast dipped in cider would then be hung on the oldest tree, as an offering to the tree dryads. Our main references for this custom come from the later period (that after the Romans had vacated this land, but before Christianity) – ‘Wassail’ was Saxon for ‘good health’.