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.

Long 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 year.

Early 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.

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This article was written to be part of a larger book.