‘Síocháin, suaimhneas, solas agus grá: Peace, tranquility, light and love.’
Most of Irelands traditions, folklore, customs, piseogs have roots in a much older wisdom, that of the Celts and the Druids. Indeed many of our Christian traditions have their roots in the Pagan Druid traditions and Christmas and its modern day celebrations are no different.
The Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year. It occurs every year around the 21st of December. The sun makes a sine wave across the sky over the course of the year. In summer it is in the northern hemisphere and over the Tropic of Cancer while as in the winter it is in the southern hemisphere and sits over the Tropic of Capricorn. During this time the sun “stops” for approximately three days before it starts to slowly creep back north again. In Irish, the Winter Solstice is “An Grianstad”, literally translating as “the sun stop”.
This marked the turning point in the battle of dark versus light in the world. At Newgrange, a beam of sunlight illuminates an entire passage in the ancient tomb structure and it’s been happening for at least 5,000 years. It will probably go on for another 5,000 years if we’re careful to preserve our history. On the island of Ireland, our ancestors who constructed Newgrange did not see Winter Solstice as an adversarial event, but a turning point in which reverence of the vital energies of darkness and lightness are understood, honoured and celebrated. The alignment of this ray of sunlight represents the Sun God, placing new life into the womb of Mother Earth.
The Knockroe Passage Tomb, on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border, is just as important. This megalithic burial site, which dates back more than 5,000 years, is unique, in that it aligns with both the rising and the setting sun on the Winter Solstice. It has separate tombs, one facing east and one with a westerly aspect. Conditions permitting, the east facing chamber lights up at sunrise and the west facing chamber is illuminated at sunset. Newgrange is only illuminated at sunrise. It is no accident that the winter solstice and Christmas fall so close together on the calendar, as older festivals have given way to modern versions. The names change but the themes remain closely linked.
I reside 9.3km from Knockroe Passage Tomb, and where else was the Druid me going to be for the Midwinter Solstice? I have been going there every year for nearly 20 years, and this year was only the second time in my life that I witnessed the sunrise on the day and wow was it a special moment. And I had the honour of celebrating it with my Druid Tribe and we sang to welcome the sun over the horizon and it was the most beautiful thing. There are no words ever for a Druid Scribe.
The land owners and local community along with the OPW have to be commended for their management and sustainability of this site. They have been responsible for the excavation and monitoring of this sacred place and the ongoing development. In this celebration every year where the Druids are made wholly welcome, they are also contributing to the intangible cultural heritage. There is this unwritten, unspoken thread between us all that pays reverence to our ancestors in this simple way and I for one am a better person for it. My soul is enriched.