At this time of year in Ireland, the sun barely raises its head over the buildings in the city centre, or over the hill at the back of my parents’ north-facing house. Catching a bit of direct sunlight is a rare gift. Many people moan about it, complaining about the early sunset and getting up in the pre-dawn dark. But I view our extreme seasonal light as a gift.
You really feel the seasons moving past when the light changes this radically. During the spring and autumn, you actually see the change in the light day by day, week by week. I find it to be a comfortable reminder of this constant cycle of death and renewal that we’re all a part of.
It also allows for extremely poignant moments at both solstices. In the summer, the sun hardly sets – at midsummer the sky will still be slightly light at midnight, and the blue blush of dawn starts to touch the sky again at three am. But at midwinter, the dark of December and January give us a firm push to turn inwards, to slow down, to get cosy by a fire or candlelight and really enjoy those hours of darkness.
It’s from countries like ours that the intensity of holidays like Christmas and Yule sprang up. Although there’s no evidence of it in our extremely limited written lore (we didn’t like to write things down in pre-Christian times and a lot of stuff that the monks later created got destroyed), the Irish megalithic monument of Newgrange is testament to the importance of the Winter Solstice to Irish people in the Neolithic period. And in Nordic countries, the tradition of Yule continues to this day.
Twelve Days of Midwinter
For me, the Winter Solstice is just one day in a two-week long festival of Midwinter. I do my Midwinter ritual the night before the Winter Solstice, celebrating the longest night and the shortest day to come, and the lengthening days after that. The period of twelve to seventeen days from the 21 December to the 1 January or 6 January (traditionally the end of Christmas in Ireland) is what I consider to be the Midwinter Season.
As I discussed before, Christmas is a central part of that season for me. It is central to my celebration of the return of the light, and the sense of renewal and rebirth that I feel at this time.
The renewal and sense of beginning that I feel at this time of year is quite subtle. Whereas spring and summer generally herald external, physical changes and beginnings, Midwinter is a time of internal change.
I will usually have gone within during the early winter months between Samhain and the Winter Solstice. I will have done more journalling, and started to let go of things no longer needed. This year, I have worked more with Tarot, but in a passive kind of way where the card’s messages have tangled themselves into my life quietly and unobtrusively.
My age changes at Samhain, and by Midwinter I can feel myself settling into that age, and that year. New things start to feel possible; new projects, new ideas, new feelings, new habits. The break from work at this time also really helps to facilitate the change. I will have almost two weeks’ holiday’s from work, and I’ve never had any less than that – I think I need it at this time of year.
The Stillness at Dawn
The dawn chorus can be cacophonous during the summer, but in winter all is still at dawn. We usually have a more muted chorus in the half-hour or so before the sun rises, but as the sun lifts its head above the horizon, a hush falls over the landscape. You have to go out of your way to find this hush if you live in the city, because dawn happens at 8:30am in December, and by then the streets are frantic. But in the parks, up on the hills, the stillness is mesmerising.
So it is with my internal renewal at this time. I have to make a deliberate effort to step away from the social chaos, but when I do, true peace and serenity awaits. Many of my nights during the Midwinter period are spent by the fire with my loved ones, and while sometimes we are boisterous and chatty, at other times we sit quietly in the candlelight and enjoy the long hours of darkness.