Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Before the widespread use of formal calendars and other time keeping methods, astronomical events were often used to guide activities such as the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. Both these sites have a primary axis aligning on sight lines pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). At Stonehenge there is one stone known as the Great Trilithon, which is oriented outwards from the middle of the monument; this means that the flat face was directed towards the midwinter sun. The winter solstice is therefore likely to have been a special moment in the annual cycle of cultures at least as far back as the Neolithic.
Monitoring the progress of the seasons was immensely important and the people at this time, and indeed for many, many centuries hence, were economically dependent on it. The winter months January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere) were known as "the famine months" as starvation came on. As deep winter began most of the cattle were slaughtered for two reasons – firstly they wouldn’t have to be fed and secondly as it provided a plentiful supply of fresh meat. At this time of year the majority of wine and beer fermented and was also ready to drink.
This time of year also had much symbolism, with the change of the sun’s presence in the sky signifying concepts of birth and rebirth. Evidence from some places suggests that the celebrations saw connections and references to life-death-rebirth deities or “new-beginnings”, such as Hogmanay's redding, a New Year cleaning tradition.
Many things have changed since the days that Stonehenge was a part of life. Today at this time of year many of us look forward to celebrating Christmas, however many of the activities we indulge in, such as feasting, predate this festival and are likely to have their origins in solstice traditions.
In the UK Winter Solstice can still be celebrated at Stonehenge and the awe of how our ancestors reflected as the sun interacts with this World Heritage site. Find out more:
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On LEGO, History and other things by Brick to the Past