The Significance of Midwinter
The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, is the shortest day of the year and falls annually on December 21st. It marks the moments when the Earth tilts farthest from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day, countries in the Northern Hemisphere experience the least amount of daylight and the longest night of darkness. It marks the midpoint of winter, where the days begin to get longer.
For ancient Irish pagans, this day was one of hope, as the hardship of winter began to draw to a close. The Winter Solstice was an important day for ancient Irish pagans, who studied the sun and marked the day each year. People gathered together to feast around large bonfires, celebrating the beginning of the coming of spring. Much of what we know about how these ancient people celebrated the Winter Solstice comes from ancient burial grounds such as Newgrange.
Newgrange and the Winter Solstice
Newgrange is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Ireland. It is a large, round megalithic structure located in County Meath. Newgrange was built around 3300 BC, making it older than the ancient pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in Great Britain. Newgrange is a passage tomb which spans 250 across and stands 40 feet high. It is thought that the people buried within the chambers of Newgrange were ancient royalty. Ancient carvings adorn large megaliths just outside the structure. This fascinating ancient tomb indicates to us that our early ancestors celebrated the Winter Solstice.
Each year, from the 18th to the 23rd December, the inner chambers of Newgrange are illuminated by sunlight at sunrise, as the rays of the rising sun align perfectly with a small opening erected above the entrance of the structure. The illumination of the inner chambers lasts for 17 minutes. The experience of entering Newgrange during the Winter Solstice is said to be deeply spiritual. Each year, 20 people are selected by lottery to enter the ancient tomb and experience the magic within. Outside, people gather to sing, dance and watch the sunrise together.
Midwinter across the Emerald Isle
Other popular places to gather on the Winter Solstice include the Hill of Tara, also in County Meath, Knockroe, County Kilkenny and Beaghmore, County Tyrone. Some prefer to witness the sunrise from the water and swim at one of Ireland’s famous sandy beaches. As the Winter Solstice draws to a close, it is common to gather around a bonfire to play traditional Irish music and tell old Irish legends.
The Winter Solstice in Ireland is seen as a day to connect with nature and the history of our earliest ancestors. So, don’t forget in the lead-up to Christmas 2022 to mark-down the winter solstice in your calendars and experience some of the magic for yourself!
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