The solstice marks mid-winter, the time when the sun’s path is lowest in the sky, nights are at their longest, and the days shortest. The sun has reached its weakest point, and light and heat are in short supply. It is a time to acknowledge the dark and the cold, but to carry the light and warmth through to the new year.
In the dark a new spark of light grows. This is a moment when change can take place.
The lead-up to the solstice has been unusually cold this year in Britain, and my attention has been focussed onto the temperature – by having my heating break down. How precious warmth and light is, but how easily we take it for granted. The one night of mid-winter is a good time to remember this, and to hold vigil for the light.
It’s not surprising that traditions for marking this time involve light or fire, for example lighting a candle in the dark, or burning a Yule log on the fire. For me, it’s fire embers glowing in the dark, or a candle lit in the room. I like to sit in silence with only the quiet sound of the fire. Of course, watching the sun set and then rise again is also an important part of marking the occasion. I try to keep an awareness of the sun travelling underneath the world from its setting to its rising.
Our ancestors clearly thought the winter solstice was important, and some particularly marked the mid-winter sunset. The Maeshowe chambered cairn on Orkney for example was designed so that the rays of the setting mid-winter sun would shine down the entrance passage to the centre of the tomb. The main alignment at Stonehenge is the mid-summer sunrise, and the mid-winter sunset.
In Carmina Geadelica, Alexander Carmicheal describes a ceremonial way of covering a peat fire for the night:
“The ceremony of smooring the fire is artistic and symbolic, and is performed with loving care. The embers are evenly spread on the hearth–which is generally in the middle of the floor–and formed into a circle. This circle is then divided into three equal sections, a small boss being left in the middle. A peat is laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, which forms a common centre. The first peat is laid down in name of the God of Life, the second in name of the God of Peace, the third in name of the God of Grace. The circle is then covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not to extinguish the fire, in name of the Three of Light. The heap slightly raised in the centre is called ‘Tula nan Tri,’ the Hearth of the Three.”
The following protective prayer might be said whilst covering the fire:
THE sacred Three
Oh! this eve,
And every night,
Each single night.
After the long night, the sun rises again, now getting stronger, with the dark giving way to the light. It is a time for celebration and new beginnings. Some ancient places mark the sunrise instead of the sunset at mid-winter. For example Newgrange in Ireland has a specially designed roof-box which allows light from the mid-winter sunrise to shine into the central chamber.
Blessings for the solstice!