Sat December 21, 2013
The Garden Report

From Past To Present: Winter Solstice Marks A New Beginning

Newgrange Collects Winter Sunlight To Illuminate Its Entire Chamber
Credit Wynnert/Flickr Creative Commons

For centuries people recognized the shorter days of winter by tracking the dwindling presence of the sun. Huge monuments were built to capture the scarce light and these structures are still common in the British Isles.

Tom Throgmorton Discusses The Traditions Of The Winter Solstice

One of the most impressive is the 5,000 year-old Newgrange structure in Ireland.  At dawn on the winter solstice, light reaches through the door into an intricately carved central chamber. 

Festivals were also a highlight this time of year and they provided great diversions in Scandinavian countries with only five or six hours of sunlight.  Iceland celebrates thirteen days of Yule where children receive gifts each day.

There’s nothing like the excitement of a gift to get the kids out of bed on a cold, dark morning. Popular gifts were candles to keep away the darkness and a deck of cards to pass the time. 

Years ago the dark of winter was also a trying time for the people of northern Europe. During the cold, dark season the agrarian society came to a standstill and food stores were in short supply. Livestock was harder to care for but the critters still needed to be fed, watered and tended. Laborers didn’t have work or money, making the winter an extra harsh season.

In contrast, our modern, non-agrarian, northern climate life has electric lights to chase away the long hours of dark. Central heating keeps us warm on frigid nights. Fresh fruits and vegetables are transported thousands of miles from Arizona, Mexico and Chili. 

We may no longer build monuments like Newgrange to catch the first morning light of the shortest day of the year, but other traditions and festivities continue today.

It’s a season of giving. Bags are filled with food and clothes; kettles are filled with money for the less fortunate. People give out more smiles and exchange friendly greetings. 

Maybe some part of all of us realizes the sun has turned the corner. After December 21st the days will begin to get longer; and that’s something to celebrate.

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