Celebrating winter solstice in the Cotswolds
11:15 14 December 2015
The ancient British tradition of the winter solstice is celebrated across the Cotswolds and beyond, with meditation, music, fires and feasting. Sarah Drew Jones explores this fascinating festival
While you’re counting down to Christmas, take a little time to celebrate the winter solstice. The good news is that you don’t have to be Pagan - or hug an oak tree at sunrise - to take part. The solstice is simply about the bond we have with nature: it heralds the start of winter, connects us with our ancestry and honours the passage of the seasons.
The winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon, denoting the shortest day of the year – usually December 21 but this year it’s December 22. In the days leading up to the solstice, the sun appears closer to the horizon each day, so the light is weaker, the days are shorter and the nights get longer.
Why? Here’s the sciencey bit. The Earth is tilted on its axis by 23½ degrees, so the Northern and Southern Hemispheres take it in turns to receive the sun’s direct light and warmth as we orbit around it. This tilt of the Earth, rather than our distance from the sun, is what creates winter and summer, and at winter solstice the Northern Hemisphere is at its furthest point from the sun (so now you know what to blame when you’re switching on lights at 3pm.)
But why celebrate? Culturally, the solstice is one of mankind’s oldest festivals, stretching back over the millennia. Worship of the sun – and the anticipation of its return, with the new life and plentiful harvest it usually guarantees – is the key component.
Egyptians celebrated the return of Ra, god of the sun, with daily rituals, and the Ancient Greeks commemorated a similar festival called Lenaea. In Rome, the feast of Saturnalia honoured the sun god Saturn and parties (as you might expect from the Romans) lasted for a week each winter.
In the UK during the Iron Age, the Celts believed that the sun stood completely still for 12 days (the word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin for ‘stationary sun’), so they lit huge fires to conquer the darkness. Tribes would gather together for lavish feasts and to tell tales, sing songs and dance through the long night.
It was the Scandinavian Norsemen who first coined the term ‘Yule’, and the highlight of the holiday was the lighting of the Yule log. Families would feast until the log burned out, believing that each spark from the burning log represented a new pig, horse or calf that would be born in the year to follow.
British Pagans still regard the winter solstice as the festival of Yule and it’s a high point in their calendar. Veronica Hammond is Archdruid and Chosen Chief of the Cotswold Order of Druids, an organisation she founded in 1995. “For druids and others, winter solstice is a time we observe the sun at its weakest point, and then, knowing the daylight hours will get longer once again, we welcome the ‘reborn Sun god’,” she explains.
“From careful observations of the skies over millennia, the ancients knew that at or around December 21st the length of the darkness and light would alter, and so they celebrated,” says Veronica. “They would slay their weakest animals, the ones that would probably not survive the winter, for the feast. They also honoured the trees with decorations to welcome a fruitful harvest for the coming year. They would cut down the whole trees, which would be drawn along by strong oxen, to provide their ‘Yule log’.”
The folkloric stories surrounding winter solstice are rich and colourful. In Germany for example, the Pagan god Odin was worshipped at this time of year. It was said that he would fly through the night sky on a winged horse, choosing which household would be blessed with good fortune or cursed with bad luck in the New Year. Fearing his wrath, most people would stay indoors, choosing to feast instead.
For Pagans today, Yule is one of the eight solar holidays, and it’s marked in a number of ways, including lighting bonfires, singing carols, exchanging gifts and decorating homes with winter foliage, berries and pine cones.
Sound a little like Christmas? Winter solstice and Christmas have long been aligned. As the Bible gives no specific date for the birth of Christ, it’s widely held that the Christian church selected December 25 in recognition of the fact that winter solstice was already a time of celebration and a turning point of the year.
In our increasingly busy world, the solstice is more important than ever, believes Veronica. “In the Cotswolds, many groups and individuals celebrate in private or with the public. Solstice is a time of revitalising the old traditions of being self-sufficient, and more people today are growing their own food, observing the old ways. In this alarmingly digital age, people are recognising the importance of looking after the planet and themselves.”
If you don’t want to spend a long winter night outdoors, there are plenty of other ways you can mark the solstice just by observing its beauty. Notice the low arc of the sun across the sky each day and enjoy the late dawns (around 8am) and early sunsets (a few minutes before 4pm). Decorate the house with evergreen holly and ivy. And for a little family fun, get the children to look at their shadow at midday: the low sun casts the longest shadows of the whole year!
Winter solstice: Where to celebrate
The Rollright Stones, near Chipping Norton: Traditionally believed to be a monarch and his courtiers turned to stone by a witch, the Rollright Stones date back to Neolithic times. They’re managed by English Heritage, and the site is open to the public from sunrise to sunset daily. The seasonal solstices attract revellers to watch the sunrise, as well as druids who perform ceremonies of worship. Celebrations are usually peaceful and much less crowded than Stonehenge. Go to english-heritage.org.uk for details.
Avebury, Wiltshire: The glorious Avebury complex makes up one of the principal ceremonial sites of Neolithic Britain. It has been adopted as a sacred site by many Pagans who view it as a living temple in which to celebrate, particularly during the solstices. The henge survives as a huge circular bank and ditch, encircling part of Avebury village, while within that is the largest stone circle in Britain. Together with Stonehenge, Avebury and its surroundings are a World Heritage Site. The henge and stone circles are managed by The National Trust on behalf of English Heritage.
Glastonbury Tor: The Mystical Isle of Avalon was once an island, is sited on ley-lines, and offers views across the Somerset Levels, Wiltshire, Dorset and Wales. Some believe the Tor is the largest 3D labyrinth in the world: worshippers who walk its grassy terraces are said to emerge renewed and reinvigorated. At dawn on the winter solstice, stand opposite the Tor: the sun seems to rise at the base of the hill and move upwards to the top to frame the 15th-century St Michael’s Tower, all that’s left of an original church. Find out more at nationaltrust.org.uk
Stonehenge, Wiltshire: It’s believed that the prehistoric architects of Stonehenge aligned the stones on a sight-line pointing directly to the winter solstice sunset, unlike some other stone circles which worshipped the summer solstice. Stonehenge is packed at solstice times, so plan ahead: go to english-heritage.org.uk for admission times and prices. On December 22, dawn is at 8.04am.