Ireland has been celebrating the different markers of the year for millian and over time these different festival have evolved to adapt to our changing Climates. Samhain has evolved into Halloween, Ombolc has evolved to St. Bridget’s Day and even the festivals of Lughnasa are believed to have evolved into the village fairs we see across the country. The Winter Solstice is a quieter festival date that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, but it may be one of the most important dates in the ancient Irish calendar based on our archeology.
The Winter Solstice or Yule, known as “An Grianstad” in Irish, is a mid-season festival on December 21st that marks the Winter Equinox – the shortest time of the year in which we only have around 9 hours of sunlight. Our ancestors would have recorded this time as having some great significant meaning, from what we can see through archeology, specifically at Newgrange which dates back as far as the Neolithic Period – around 5,000 years ago!
Newgrange is one of the oldest buildings in the world, and is the second largest of the mounds of Brú na Bóinne, the largest being Knowth. It is approximately 80m in diameter with a 19m long passage tomb running through the mound with a corbelled ceiling which has kept the interior of Newgrange water-tight for millenia. Upon its rediscovery in the early 20th century, bones and cremated remains were found on the flat stones in the chambers of the passage tomb, along with intricate designs and grooves carved into the stone of triskles and spirals that to this day historians are still unsure of their significant meaning. Some believe that Newgrange, and it’s surrounding mounds in Brú na Bóinne, were the burial sites for important figures in society, such as Kings or Bards, and that the Winter Solstice marked a point in the calendar when the first light born after the longest night carried the spirits of the dead, but this is only speculation.
The entryway of the passage tomb, guarded by an intricate carved kerbstone and a lightbox above the doorway, is perfectly aligned so that at dawn from the 19th to 22nd of December the rising sun [pierces through the lightbox perfectly illuminates the long inner-chamber for 17 minutes.
There is so much we can learn through monuments like Newgrange on how our ancestors celebrated different markings of the year, and what they may have meant, and even looking at things we still do today says a lot about how our folklore and culture has evolved. Today, the Winter Solstice is synonymous with dark, cold evenings shared with loved ones and roaring fires, and I’m sure not much has managed to change in the past 5.000 years.