winter solstice sun
setting red beneath orange clouds,
Celebration of the winter solstice goes back at least 30,000 years, when people held festivals of light to ensure the return of summer. Many ancient stone structures were designed to observe solar events such as the winter and summer solstices. Stonehenge, perhaps the best known, is aligned to point to the winter solstice at sunset.
My first view of Stonehenge is from a hilltop overlooking the Salisbury plain, not long after the summer solstice. Above a field of golden wheat bordered with red poppies, the standing stones look like a child's building blocks piled on a green carpet. Up close, we discover that the site is enclosed by a chain link fence and the stones are roped off. Visitors walk around the circle at a distance but are not permitted inside the temple. However, this year an English Heritage special access tour allowed a group of 1,000 to stand inside the circle and observe sunrise at the winter solstice, when the central Altar aligns with the Slaughter Stone, the Heel Stone and the rising sun to the northeast. This spectacular sight was followed by a Druid fire ceremony celebrating the rebirth of the sun.
Rebirth is a major theme of many holidays at this time of year. Many modern Christmas traditions celebrating the birth of Jesus can be traced back to ancient Celtic practices, which are still practiced by Pagans to this day. The Druids call their winter solstice celebration Alban Arthuan, "the Light of Arthur," because they believe that King Arthur was born at the winter solstice. Alban Arthuan is also known as Yule, "the Wheel of the Year." The Yule log is lit on the eve of the winter solstice from the remains of the previous year's log and allowed to burn for twelve hours for good luck. The Yule tree is decorated with lights to represent the sun, moon and stars, and gifts are hung on the tree as offerings to the various deities. Holly was revered because it remained green when the sacred oak lost its leaves and holly was placed on doors as protection from evil spirits. Mistletoe, "All Heal," was believed to have all kinds of miraculous powers: healing, giving fertility, protecting from witchcraft and bringing good luck. It was so sacred that if enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting and maintain the truce until the following day. From this arose the modern practice of hanging mistletoe in a doorway as a sign of peace and good will. So the ancient traditions continue, transformed but not forgotten.