Christmas lights, Christmas decorations, Christmas parties, shopping for Christmas presents…. the weeks leading up to December 25 are a whirlwind of festive activities and things-to-do in preparation of what many consider to be the biggest and best holiday celebration of the year.
But tucked away in the third calendar week of December is another celebration, one that pre-dates the birth of little baby Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem and our Western calendar’s distinction between Anno Domini (AD) and Before Christ (BC).
It’s also older than Santa Claus, more formally known as Saint Nicholas, who was a fourth century Christian saint.
It’s an astronomical and cultural event called winter solstice that can be traced back to Neolithic times, evidenced by archaeological sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland. Newgrange, a tomb in Ireland that dates back to possibly 3,200 BC, is illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. As explained by Wikipedia: “A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December.”
Occurring on the shortest day and longest night of the year, usually December 21, winter solstice is the time when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky. Cultures worldwide have recognized its seasonal significance of reversing the longer nights and shorter days that lead up to mid-winter. And it continues to be celebrated with festivals, gatherings and rituals.
This year’s winter solstice has an added perk. It’s regarded as the end of the Mayan calendar, a 5,125-year-long cycle that holds mythical signficance numerologically as well as astrologically.
You may have even heard that the world is going to end, a theory ridiculed by NASA scientists who compare the calendar ending to the one on your kitchen wall that doesn’t cease to exist after December 31. Whatever happens — or doesn’t happen — on December 21, it won’t hurt to take time out from the hectic holiday rush and honour the ancient wisdom of our ancestors and tune into nature. Happy winter solstice to everyone.