On Thursday 21 December at 16:28 GMT the sun reaches the position of the Winter Solstice. The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin solstitium meaning ‘sun standing still’. It is the point at which the sun seems to turn and change direction. The earth is slightly tilted on its axis and the solstices mark the point at which the angle of the tilt reaches its limit and changes, thus changing the relationship between the sun and the earth. After the Winter Solstice, the length of daylight starts to increase again and the nights start to get shorter – although the effect isn’t fully noticed until early January. The solstice is traditionally marked at the first dawn following the time of the solstice, so this year it is celebrated on Friday 22 December.
The winter season started on November 11th. Called Martlemas (Martinmas) it marked the first day of winter. On Martlemas geese, hogs and cattle were killed. Goose fat was rendered and stored, hams were salted and smoked, sausages and salamis made and beef was salted or dried. By Martlemas all the food that was necessary to survive the winter needed to have been gathered, preserved and stored before the first frosts and the typical mid-November cold spell that heralds the onset of winter. Martlemas celebrated the completion of this busy period with the first wines and foods of the winter season. Although it is usually very wintery from mid-November onwards, occasionally there is a sudden warm spell before the temperatures plunge. Now called an Indian Summer, this was originally called “St. Martin’s Summer”. The traditional St Martin’s goose later morphed into the Thanksgiving turkey. The forty days following Martlemas are known as advent in the Christian calendar.
From the Neolithic era when farming was introduced, the Winter Solstice was traditionally the time when the last of the animals were slaughtered. Over the winter, with less and less food to find, they would lose condition and require feeding from the stores of grains gathered in the autumn. Unless it was a bumper year, this grain was needed for people to survive. It was marked by a great feast, the feast of Juul (Yule) and later replaced by Christmas. This was often a feast of wild game such as three-bird pie, goose, venison or a boars’ head or, if you were a farmer or wealthy townsman, a fattened goose, ham or roast beef.
Nowadays I dislike how commercial Christmas has become but I still enjoy the festivities as a distraction to the cold, dark days. Here in Scotland, on the day of the solstice sunrise is at 08:44 and sunset is at 15:42 and it’s all too easy to slide into hibernation. We have a family pact that presents can only be given if you have made them yourself. It takes the financial pressure off everyone so that we can really enjoy coming together for a fabulous meal and spending time together.
Personally I like to reflect at the solstice. As the earth turns to face the reborn sun, so thoughtful solstice meditation helps me to cast off the things that went wrong in the last year. The areas where I could do better, disappointments and frustrations and start to turn toward the light again. New light, new hope, new plans, forgiveness and the promise of things to come. Although the winter is not over each new minute of light, as the days lengthen again, helps to remind me to see beyond the gloom.
It is easy to feel despair in humanity and the state of the world today. Especially for those of us old enough to remember a calmer, kinder, friendlier age, before the advent of the 24/7 electronic addiction to the dopamine hit of the ‘Like’ button. It wasn’t a rosy age without problems, bad things still happened, but you could switch off, you felt more free, your leisure time was your own and most children still had a childhood.
My prayer for the world in 2018 is that social media grows up and becomes a force for good. Without respect for each other, hiding behind a profile selfie, the statistics show that the mental health of our young people declines while teen suicide increases, along with increasing sexual aggression. Somehow we need to teach new generations that respect and kindness towards each other – the qualities needed to make a small tribe or community function – are essential when connecting us to all of humans. We need that connection now. Our politicians aren’t listening and only through social media – whether we like it or not – can we reach each other to create the groundswell necessary to reverse our destruction of our planet.
The Gorsedd Prayer
Dyro Dduw dy Nawdd;
Ag yn nawdd, nerth;
Ag yn nerth, Deall;
Ag yn Neall, Gwybod;
Ac yngwybod, gwybod y cyfiawn;
Ag yngwybod yn cyfiawn, ei garu;
Ag o garu, caru pob hanfod;
Ag ymhob Hanfod, caru Duw.
Duw a phob Daioni.
Grant spirit, your protection
And in protection, strength
And in strength, understanding
And in understanding, knowledge
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it
And in that love, the love of all creation
And in the love of all creation
The love of spirit.
Spirit and all goodness.