Midwinter

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It is the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the day with the shortest time between sunrise and sunset. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is about midwinter and the winter solstice. In the southern hemisphere, people celebrate midsummer or the summer solstice on this day.

The sun is at its most southerly point on this day and will then continue its way north again. Since prehistoric times, the winter solstice has been a very important time of the year in many cultures. Because the winter solstice is the reversal of the sun’s fading away in the sky, the sun comes out longer and longer every day after this moment, it was seen in ancient times as the symbolic death and rebirth of the sun or of a sun god.

Charles Knight portrayed what Stonehenge may have looked like in 1845, Old England: A Pictorial Museum

Some important Neolithic and Early Bronze Age archaeological sites in Europe are associated with the winter solstice, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both monuments appear to be carefully aligned on a line of sight pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge).

Midwinter sunrise at Stonehenge, many people have gathered at the megalithic site to see this phenomenon (although this site is about sunset).

Although it is now over 5,000 years old, the prehistoric monument known as Stonehenge is still important, especially on the solstices. On the June 21 summer solstice, English Heritage says, the sun rises behind a feature known as the Heel Stone.

On the winter solstice, the sun dips to its lowest point in the sky, creating a dramatic sunset at the monument.

It lies between what would have been the uprights of the tallest trilithon, consisting of two vertical stones surmounted by a horizontal lintel. Significantly, at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon faced outward from the center of the monument, its smooth flat surface faced the midwinter sun.

Archaeological evidence shows that Neolithic people used midwinter as a reason to celebrate. Excavations in the area, which is rich in prehistoric monuments and ritual sites, show that people likely gorged themselves on food during midwinter feasts. Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement just two miles from the ritual complex at Stonehenge, has very large deposits of pig and bovine bones. Judging by the age of the animals, English Heritage reports, they would have been slaughtered around the time of the winter solstice.

Neolithic site; the Goseck circle in Germany. The yellow lines indicate the directions where sunrise and sunset can be seen on the day of the winter solstice. The vertical line shows the astronomical meridian.
Various astronomical alignments of Stonehenge

The Neolithic Sun Observatory Goseck in Saxony-Anhalt is considered the oldest solar observatory in the world. It was built around 4900 BC. and remained in use for about 200 years. The circle consists of a concentric ditch 75 meters wide and two palisade rings with entrances in places aligned with sunrise and sunset on the days of the winter solstice. The site’s existence was made public in August 2003. It was opened to visitors in December 2005. The site is part of a larger group of circular enclosures in the Elbe and Danube area, most of which show similar solstice alignments.

After about 50 years since it was first discovered, there is now general agreement that the passageway and chamber at the Newgrange Passage Tomb in Ireland aligns with the winter solstice and that around the time of the solstice – and only then – light passes along the long passage to the farthest part of the room shines. The most important part of the Newgrange design was a ‘roof box’ or ‘light box’ that controlled the way light entered the passageway. This space above the entrance was built with carefully crafted baffles that limited light to the time of the winter solstice and also so that light only entered at dawn. After thousands of years, the sun no longer enters during sunrise, but a little later on the same day.

The sun falls through Newgrange’s lightbox during midwinter

Tim O’Brien said: “Newgrange’s structural features provide the ideal environment to study the minute motion of the sun when it is visually stationary.” Writing of another but related Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland: “As the sun shines directly on the symbols inscribed on the backstone, they act not merely as primitive representations of the sun, but as devices precisely positioned to measure the solar movement.

Schematic representation of the sun’s entry into the Newgrange corridor during midwinter

Newgrange is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. It is, in fact, just one monument within the Neolithic Brú na Bóinne complex, alongside the similar passage burial mounds of Knowth and Dowth, and as such is part of the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage Site. Newgrange also shares many similarities with other Neolithic constructions in Western Europe, such as the Maeshowe tomb in Orkney, Scotland and the Bryn Celli Ddu site in Wales. After its first use, the entrance to Newgrange was sealed and remained closed for several millennia, acquiring various associations in local folklore and mythology.

It was first studied as a prehistoric monument by antiquaries in the seventeenth century AD, and several archaeological excavations took place at the site over the following centuries before it was largely restored to an interpretation of its original Neolithic appearance by curators in the 1970s. Today Newgrange is a popular tourist site and, according to archaeologist Colin Renfrew, “is regarded without hesitation by the prehistorian as the great national monument of Ireland”.

Granite basin at Newgrange
The light box above the entrance

Other structures also show alignments with sunrise and/or sunset during midwinter. A Clava cairn is a circular Bronze Age stone cairn named after the group of three cairns at Balnuaran or Clava (east of Inverness in Scotland). There are about 50 cairns of this type in an area around Inverness. They fall into two subtypes:

  1. a passage tomb with a single burial chamber connected to the entrance by a short passage and covered with a cairn, the entrances oriented southwest (towards midwinter sunset).
  2. an annular cairn encloses an apparently uncovered area with no formal outside access.
Information board at the Balnuaran of Clava, with an artist’s impression of a burial (with the sunset during midwinter)

Modern buildings also appear to be oriented towards the winter solstice, such as the cathedral of Palma de Mallorca. Every year, on the winter solstice, the dawn sun enters through the great rose window (El ojo del gótico; the Gothic eye) of Palma Cathedral (la Seu) and emerges through the other end which overflows with color from the interior of the cathedral.

Winter solstice on the Seu seen from the Bastió de Sant Pere, the windows of the Cathedral of Mallorca let the light through. Many people have gathered at the place where you can see this phenomenon.

The winter solstice, or midwinter, is surrounded by festivals and rituals. These festivals and rituals are not always performed on the day of midwinter itself, in some cases this only happened when the sun could clearly be seen moving to the north again. That is a few days after the actual solstice.

The entrance to Mnajdra South, a megalithic temple in Malta, is aligned with sunrise on the solstice and equinox. The first rays of the rising sun at the summer solstice illuminate the vertical orthostat in the left front apse. The first rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice illuminate the vertical orthostat in the right front apse. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rays of the rising sun illuminate the central passage and the inner niche.

Schematic representation of the equinoxes and solstices

Many predictions were made during midwinter, as was already told in Predictions. Midwinter also plays an important role in mythology. Baldr’s death in winter is said to be related to the solstices, he was killed by his twin brother using a mistletoe. The dark overcame the light in this case. You can read more about this in Baldr’s Stone.

The gods can only cry at first because of their grief. Baldr’s mother Frigg speaks and asks “who is among the Æsir who would earn all my love and favours, and is ready to ride the road to Hel and try if he could find Baldr, and offeres Hel a ransom if she would bring Baldr back to Asgard?”.

The “kiss under the mistletoe” comes from the legend about Baldr. Frigg decided never to ignore the mistletoe again. To stop thinking that the mistletoe was a weapon, she decided to kiss anyone who walked under a bouquet of mistletoe.

This is “the sacrificial stone” on Friggas kulle (Frigg’s Hill), Gothenburg, on December 20, 2008; Yule-blót (a Norwegian midwinter ceremony celebrated during the Winter Solstice or Christmas). In the photo we see the blot stone after the ceremony. The offering consisted mainly of beer and seeds.

It was already mentioned in Moving Stones and Spinners that there are also folk tales about midwinter and megaliths. Tinkinswood is about a mile from St. Lythans Cromlech. It is a Cotswold-Severn Group type dolmen. According to legend, anyone who spent a night at Tinkinswood on the evenings before May 1, St. John’s Day (June 23) or Midwinter’s Day would either die, go mad or become a poet. The group of boulders to the southeast of the monument are said to be women who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath day, another legend associated with multiple megaliths (examples can be found in Petrification).

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of Northern Europe celebrated a winter festival called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, or the Yule Festival). The Heimskringla, written in the 13th century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson, describes a Christmas party organized by the Norwegian King Haakon the Good (ca. 920-961). According to Snorri, the Christian Haakon had moved the festival from “midwinter” and aligned it with the Christian Christmas celebration. In the Scandinavian languages, as well as in Finnish and Estonian, the word jul is still used to describe the festivities throughout the period from Christmas Eve to Epiphany.

Under the influence of Christianity, the pagan jul festival has been transformed into the Christmas or Midwinter celebration, also known as the Twelve Holy Nights. Older customs such as the Midwinter fire have been given a place in this. A log, or tree trunk, was brought to the houses especially for the occasion. Variants are the Yule fire and the Yule candle. The American folklorist Linda Watts gives the following description about the log that is ritually burned:

The custom of burning the Yule block dates back to earlier solstice celebrations and the tradition of bonfires. The Christmas practice calls for a portion of the block to be burned every night until Twelfth Night (January 6). The block is then placed under the bed for good luck, and in particular for protection against the domestic threats of lightning and, with some irony, fire. Many have beliefs based on the Christmas block as it burns, and by counting the sparks and such, they try to determine their fortunes for the New Year and beyond.

The log for the Christmas fire (Yule Log or Yule block) being dragged into Hever Castle, 19th century

The custom of burning a Yule log over one or more nights, starting on Christmas Eve, was also formerly widespread in France, where the common term is bûche de noël. In Burgundy, gifts would be hidden under the tree trunk. Prayers were said while the tree trunk was lit in Brittany and Provence, where the custom is still widely practiced and called cacho fio (blessing of the tree trunk). The trunk, or branch of a fruit-bearing tree, is first paraded around the house three times by the grandfather of the family. Then the tree or branch is blessed with wine; it is often lit along with the stored ashes from last year’s block.

Blessing of the bûche de noël in Arles, 1916

Other regional names for the bûche de noël are cosse de Nau in Berry, mouchon de Nau in Angoumois, chuquet in Normandy, souche in Île de France and tréfouiau in the Vendée. The custom has now been replaced in many cases by eating a tree-shaped cake, also called Bûche de Noël. In the Netherlands people also know the ‘boomstammetjes‘.

The Catalans have a similar tradition, bringing home “Tió”, a magical block with a smiling face that lives in the forest. Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), the tió is given a little to “eat” every evening and usually covered with a blanket so that it does not get cold. The story goes that in the days leading up to Christmas, children should take good care of the block, keep it warm and feed it so that it gives presents on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, the tió is placed partially in the fireplace and ordered to defecate. The fire part of this tradition is not as widespread as it once was, as many modern homes do not have fireplaces. To make the ritual work, the tió is beaten with sticks, while various songs by Tió de Nadal are sung.

Bûche de Noël, nowadays it is usually a Christmas treat (cake)
Tió de Nadal

Parallels were observed as early as Jacob Grimm in the early 19th century between the South Slavic custom of the Badnjak and the tradition of the Christmas block. As noted by M.E. Durham (1940) the Badnjak is a sapling that is placed in the hearth on Christmas Eve. Various customs can be performed involving the Badnjak, such as smearing with chicken blood or goat blood and the ashes are “strewn in the fields or garden to promote fertility on New Year’s Eve.”

The Slavs interpret the badnjakals as an incarnation of the spirit of vegetation, and as a deity who dies by burning in order to be reborn, to whom sacrifices and prayers were made for the fertility of fields, health and happiness of the family. The burning fires symbolized the vitalizing power of the sun in the coming year.

A Serbian Orthodox priest places the badnjak on the fire

Scholar Rudolf Simek notes that the pagan Yule festival “had a distinctly religious character” and that “it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule festival still had a function in the cult of the dead and in ancestor worship. A function that certainly applied to the Western European Stone and Bronze Ages during the Midwinter Sacrifice.”

The celebrations and rituals continue to adapt to the times. Midwinter is still a special day for many people. Maybe you hang the lights in the Christmas tree on this day. Or do you wait until Christmas or have those lights been hanging in it for a while? Maybe you just can’t wait to burn the Christmas tree. Maybe you don’t like trees and fires at all, but you visit a megalithic site during midwinter. However you celebrate this day, I wish everyone a happy holiday season and a happy new year.

Marinda Ruiter

People have gathered at Stonehenge to celebrate Midwinter, 2018

This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: Midwinter

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