It can be difficult to remember with all the fuss of Christmas, but this is the darkest time of the year. The very function of all midwinter festivals is to make us forget that. Despite the modern fervour for celebrating the summer solstice, all the great ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge and Newgrange, were set up to mark the midwinter solstice. For now is the scary time. In our light-filled world where you can get every variety of food all year round we have become quite divorced from this crucial point in the agricultural year. What midwinter heralded was famine.
Since there would not be enough feed for the cattle, they were slaughtered. December was a great time for fresh meat. Happily it coincided with the fermenting of the grape harvest. Midwinter has been a feast since at least the beginning of farming, and one suspects before that, too.
Saturnalia in ancient Rome ran from 17th to 23rd December, and the Feast of Brumalia – Bacchus – ended on 25th December. In ancient Greece it was Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women, commemorating – and re-enacting – the dismemberment of Dionysius by the Maenads. That festival included wine miracles, when jars containing water were left sealed overnight and opened the next day to find the contents had turned into wine. The festival ended with the rebirth of Dionysius as a sacred baby.
The Celtic midwinter festival also centred on a sacred birth, that of Pryderi to Rhiannon.
In the later times of the Roman Empire, when it had become a melting pot for so many races and religious cults, the Festival of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was established. It was a joint celebration of the Syrian god, Elah-Gabal, Sol, Mithras and, later, Jesus.
In our own multi-cultural times, we celebrate Hanukkah and Divali around the same time as Christmas. And you don’t have to be Christian to send cards, get presents and have decorated trees. This is a time for everyone to huddle together, light the lights and forget the weather.
But this year is special. This year there will be a full moon at the solstice. And more than that, it will be eclipsed. Apparently the last time that happened was 456 years ago (when Lady Jane Grey was beheaded, in case you’re wondering). See
The time of the eclipse has been given as 0633 to 1001 GMT, with total eclipse from 0741 to 0853 GMT. It will be best observed from USA and Canada. In Europe we may see the beginning of the eclipse just as the moon sets on Tuesday morning.
So up you get at dawn on Tuesday to crunch about in the snow, because yes, we have a white Christmas to add to the pile of omens, and see the moon perhaps go pink or coppery. Let’s offer up a prayer of gratitude that, thanks to supermarkets, we are not facing deep winter and the famine months in the raw.
But they did back then, so for authenticity in your work, gen up on food preservation and the taste of salt beef and fruit leathers.