And, indeed, throughout the northern hemisphere.
Our ancestors used to celebrate this event: but we, with our superior knowledge of all matters scientific, can afford to be condescending to those folk of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, with their superstitions and quaint religious festivals. Not for us the pagan rituals of burning bonfires to encourage the sun to return, of bringing sprigs of holly and ivy into our homes to bring us luck; we don’t hang mistletoe above doorways to keep misfortune away; nor do we believe that we should keep a fire burning in our houses throughout the 24 hours of the winter solstice, using logs cut from a hard, slow-burning wood which would remain alight even while we slept. No, no, we don’t follow the traditions of our pre-Christian ancestors – do we?
Friday, December 21, 2018is the date of the winter solstice, the day when ‘the sun stands still’, which is the English version of the Latin name we give to this day. It usually falls on the 21st of December, although the vagaries of our calendar … with an extra day in February every fourth year … mean that the winter solstice can occasionally fall a day either side of the 21st. Some people call this day ‘the shortest day’, for this is the day when sunrise and sunset are closest together in any year. Sunrise in Falkirk on December 21st this year will be at 08.45 and the sun will set again just under seven hours later at 15.42. And, although the weather forecasters in the Meteorological Office think, as this is written, that a showery day is in prospect with some sunny intervals ... so we may actually see sunrise and sunset… the temperature is expected to rise to only 7°C (45°F in old money). And that means there’s not going to be any growth in most garden plants, for it’s plain and simply too cold.
This is why our Druidic ancestors, fearful lest the sun was going to disappear altogether, lit fires to tempt the sun to come back. Our predecessors knew when the winter solstice would occur, as Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus at the University of Vermont, explains. “Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, admits the winter solstice setting sun. It is hailed as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland. Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes.” And once the winter solstice had passed and their rituals had had the desired effect of bringing back longer, warmer days, the preparations for growing the next harvest could begin, for the two most important factors in plant growth are the temperature and the amount of light, whose energy is captured by plants by means of photosynthesis.
But in these long, dark evenings, you might care to reflect on the real reason why you probably have an evergreen tree … decorated with coloured light which you take care to switch on … sharing your living space with you; on why your Christmas decorations and cards feature a lot of reds, greens and white - the Druidic holiday colours. You may wish to recollect why you are looking forward to enjoying a Yule log, albeit yours is a chocolate one – and I might mention that there is a view that the word ‘Yule’, a synonym for Christmas, came from the Saxon word meaning ‘wheel’, referring to the cycles of the sun. And, as you anticipate opening your Christmas presents, you might offer thanks to our ancestors for their habit of offering small gifts to the gods representing the sun, earth, and harvest to encourage these gods to look favourably on them in the coming twelvemonth. So let me wish you “Merry Yule!” rather than “Happy Christmas!”.