Winter Solstice 2021

Inside the Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland) tomb on Winter Solstice

Tomorrow, December 21, the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice, will be observed around the world in a variety of ways. Some examples are provided on this page. Clearly some human communities have been and are still so deeply moved by this phenomenon that they have come to mark it with ancient rituals predating modern religions. Remarkable architectural structures created by pre-Christian cultures draw visitors each year, most famously perhaps at Stonehenge but other sites as well like 5,200 year old Newgrange in Ireland (above photo). In past years, people who wished to witness the winter solstice phenomenon from within the Newgrange tomb would be selected by lottery. This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, this site will stay closed but available for archeological research.

Indigenous peoples observe winter solstice as another way of maintaining their close connection to the rhythms of nature. In this, they have much to teach and guide us as in this page from the NDN Collective. (NDN, a shortening of Native Indian, is sometimes used by Native Americans in the United States to refer to themselves.) American Indian influence on Catholic missionaries can be seen in 18th and 19th century Spanish mission churches in California where sunlight blazes through the churches on winter solstice.

Winter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of the Spanish Royal Presidio Chapel, Santa Barbara, California. The author first documented this solar illumination of the altar in 2004. Rubén G. Mendoza, CC BY-ND

Winter solstice provides the occasion for feasts and festivals like the Korean Dongji. In this winter soltice party (3 minute video) at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, the event seems like a blend of winter solstice and Christmas (e.e., students singing “Have yourself a merry little solstice), a convergence many believe to be the reason why Christmas is a late December celebration.

Why do many of us in the postmodern world maintain a fascination with sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange? Or enjoy participating in special events marking the Winter Soltice? For example, The Trustees, (an organization devoted to protecting historic and natural sites in Massachusetts), is offering several such events this year. (Note that several of those events have sold out.) I believe Thomas Berry provides a way of understanding the Winter Soltice’s deeper meaning:

With regard to time and seasons, rituals were established [by “earlier peoples” – Berry’s phrase] to create a consciousness of the moments of cosmological change: the dawn and dusk of the daily sequence of sunlight and darkness, the increase and decline in the phases of the moon , the winter solstice especially in the danger moment of the universe, the period of dark descent; then came the rise into a world of warmth and light and the blossoming of the plants and the birth moment throughout the mammailan world. These moments of change were the moments when the shining forth of the phenomenal world was most evident. Such moments were moments of grace, moments when the sacred world communicated itself with special clarity to the world of the human. [TB, 53]

So tomorrow celebrate this moment of grace. Light a candle or two, pour a drink of your choice, and wish a merry solstice to your dear ones and the rest of the earth community! (And try some of the suggestions offered by the NDN Collective.)

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