As the sun rises above the Irish Boyne Valley around
December 21st, its rays pour into a passage that was built
more than 5000 years ago. The light beam slowly lengthens
towards the back wall, until finally it illuminates the
entire chamber of the tomb.
before the Egyptian pyramids were erected, the Neolithic
builders of Newgrange, or Si An Bhru as it was once known,
had the knowledge to orient their sacred site towards the
Winter Solstice sunrise. The light an-nounced the arrival
of the shortest day of the year, and although we have no
record of rituals held on this occasion by the Irish Celts,
the monument is witness to the importance that the date
had in their lives.
For a farming society that was dependent on the seasons,
the return of the light marked a crucial time of the cycle.
Although the coldest months still lay ahead, their hardships
could be endured knowing that day by day, the sun’s
strength was increasing. Soon it would be time to prepare
for sowing the seeds and thus begin the new growing season.
We can assume that it was exactly because of this sense
of a new start that Germanic peoples on the European mainland
regarded the Winter Solstice to be the beginning of a new
farmers in what is now Germany observed this event by making
animal and sometimes even human sacrifices. Around 5000
BC, earlier even than Newgrange, they began building the
sun-observatory near Goseck in Sachsen-Anhalt. Two of its
three gates are aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the
winter solstice, and it is in the center of its three circles
that cult celebrations took place.
There are many stories that symbolize the rebirth of light
as it reclaims the reign from darkness. In the Arthurian
Tales, for example, we learn of the Green Knight, who intrudes
on King Arthur’s New Year celebration. After insulting
the king and queen, he challenges the knights of the Round
Table to behead him, and then come to the Green Chapel in
twelve month’s time to be beheaded in turn. Enraged,
it is young Sir Gawain who executes the task. Yet the Green
Knight is not dead after the blow that separated head from
body. Riding off, he reminds Sir Gawain of his promise,
and receives him at the end of another year.