This is the text of an article that I wrote for the Dundalk Democrat:
AS long as there have been people on this island, there has been a
celebration at the time of Christmas.
Back in the Stone Age, when people were constructing the great monuments at Newgrange and Loughcrew and on the mountains of Sligo, one of the big feasts of the year was celebrated at the time of Winter Solstice.
The solstice marked the shortest day of the year, when there was the least sunlight, and the longest nights.
The sun's rising position, which moves slowly along the horizon during the year, comes to a stop at Winter Solstice, hence the name - Solstice, which comes from the Latin sol, meaning "sun", and sistere, meaning "standing still" - so solstice means "Standing still sun". The ancient Irish probably knew it as "Grianstad", meaning "sun stop" or "stopped sun".
There's no doubt that light played a very important role in the organisation
of people's lives in the Neolithic. Winter would have brought major
challenges to people living in communities in such places as the Boyne
Valley. The real challenge was to survive in the cold and the dark.
It is probable that an element of the Winter Solstice ritual, which was
practiced at many sites around Ireland, would have involved the "calling
back of the sun", so to speak, the renewal of light and the strengthening
and warming of the days.
Our own need to bring light into our lives at this dark time is reflected in
our modern day ritual of hanging up Christmas lights. Over the next few
weeks, these lights will spring up everywhere - in people's windows, their
porches, around their doors, on trees in their gardens and even on their
5,000 years ago, when groups of people were surviving through the dark days of winter, they brought great comfort from the fact that the full moon in winter time was much higher than in summer and provided good light in the dark. There is abundant evidence that the ancients were keen star-gazers too, and may have formed myths and stories around the stars and planets.
The need for light in dark days is universal. In many countries, there are
major feasts, festivals and ancient rituals which are concerned with the sun and the longest and shortest days. Today, we fulfill that need with electric lights. Long ago, there were fireside stories and folk tales told under the stars.
It is no coincidence that the celebration of Christmas Day falls within
three or four days of the winter solstice.
With Christmas, we are effectively continuing on a celebratory tradition
which was alive at least 5,000 years ago, if not more. Near Dundalk, at
Carnbeg, there was once a giant "stonehenge" monument, which was likely to have marked out solstice sunrises and sunsets with its giant stones. Then, as now, the people celebrated and feasted at Christmas, even if they didn't call it Christmas.
The modern celebration of Christmas began, of course, with Christ, whose
coming forth into the world was foretold by an interesting astronomical
phenomenon involving the "Star of Bethelehem". Today, astronomers are still debating what this magical, mythical star could have been. Was it a
so-called "supernova", a distant exploding star suddenly brightening
massively? Was it a conjunction of two bright planets, such as Venus and
Jupiter? Or was it a new bright comet, such as comet Hale-Bopp which graced our skies just a decade ago? We'll probably never know.
In addition to Christmas, there are other feast, festivals, holy days and
celebrations which coincide with the times of year when there were ancient
Hallowe'en, for instance, which was just a few short weeks ago, coincides
with the ancient festival of Samhain, which marked a significant date in the
old Irish and Celtic calendar, and was considered to mark the start of the
"dark half" of the year. The tradition of lighting fires on such occasions
continues today with the Hallowe'en bonfires. (Although these days, councils are cracking down on these fires!)
The start of the "bright half" of the year was Bealtaine, which was marked
in more recent times by May Day.
St. Brigid's Day coincides with Imbolc, the old "cross-quarter" date,
marking the half way point between winter solstice and spring equinox. St.
John's Eve coincides with Summer Solstice, and in some rural locations even today the practice of lighting St. John's Eve fires continues.
So this Christmas, when you put the star on top of the tree and you switch
on the fairy lights in the front window, try to imagine yourself back in
those dark ancient days when people didn't have electricity and the
trappings of modern life but yet still celebrated at the time of the
solstice and dreamed about the coming of the light into their lives once
Creator and Curator,