” Welcome everything! Welcome all alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly, to your places around the Christmas fire, where what is sits open-hearted.” –Charles Dickens, 1851
There is a moment of silence that occurs every year, somewhere between the dawn of Christmas Eve and the setting of the sun on Christmas Day itself–a moment we have all experienced at least once in our lives, maybe more than once. It can silence a great city like London or New York, and it can bring stillness to our hearts, whoever and wherever we may be. It offers the promise of new beginnings, of the clean slate of a new year, and it incorporates the breathless expectancy of Christmas night itself, when a familiar figure enter our lives and changes them briefly. It is a moment such as this that lies at the heart of the Midwinter Solstice.
There are many legends and traditions which have made it down through the centuries and are still with us in the twenty first century. There was a bringer of Christmas fare, the Green Knight. He is woven in and out of King Authur’s court. He would arrive just as the festivities were beginning. He offered a strange game—that someone should strike his neck with his great ax. Only Gawain is brave enough to accept the challenge, and undergoes many trials before the tale ends. For once his head has been severed, the Green Knight is able to pick it up, and await the coming of his challenger—a trick that Gawain is not able to do. The Green Knight is the incarnate spirit of Winter, able to present his frightening challenge as the prelude to a battle for the hand of the Spring Maiden.
“It is only in the past three hundred years or so that a “rational” civilization has turned its back on both the Christian and the Pagan traditions and remembered the Solstice by custom and habit rather than by an instinctual involvement with the turning of the seasons.
—Shirley Toulson: A Winter Solstice
“Here at the gateway of the year,
may we strive to make good cheer.
In our revels shall joy abound
and sorrow be cast underground.”
—Caitlin Matthews: Sun Still; Sun Return
It is just before sunrise on a cold December day some three thousand years before the coming of Christ. For those crouched at the heart of the mound it must seem as though light has been banished forever. Then, suddenly, a tiny sliver of sunlight strikes the stone slab at the back of the chamber. Slowly it widens, climbs upward, illuminating a number of mysterious carvings—circles and spirals, zigzag patterns. For the people crouched in the center of the great mound of Brug na Boine (also known as New Grange) every symbol has meaning. But by far the greatest significance is the return of the sun itself. The light that enters the dark womb of the earth brings with it the promise of warmth and life to come.