The Dark Hours of Midwinter

Tomorrow is the astronomical Winter Solstice, an auspicious liminal moment in time. The long daylight hours of midsummer, a time for human activities enjoying life and holidays are remembered. The dark hours of midwinter, in contrast in the past were seen as a time for the gods; their movements visible in the heavens throughout this, the longest night. The night time was so revered, being the abode of the ‘gods’, when they had their time, ‘their day’ when the planets, stars and constellations could shine for longer in darker skies.

Our calendar still starts with the ‘dying sun’ that is associated with winter, as Bede recorded in 725 A.D. The solar year began with the turning of the sun towards longer days, that is, with the longest night, recorded as “mothers’ night”, a celebration still known in Germany today, the mother being the goddess who brings the new born sun back into existence. During the Roman Empire, a festival of light, Saturnalia, was celebrated between 17th – 23rd December. This coincided with a time of high feasting, public holidays and gift giving, leading to the Winter Solstice, the ‘Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun’ that was celebrated on 25th December.

Liminal moments in time also have their terrestrial counterpart. In-between locations in the landscape, liminal zones where the sea met the shore line, the river met the land, fjords, river inlets, bridges and intertidal zones were all such spaces, between this world and the next; the underworld. The liminal qualities associated with wet and watery landscape features were seen as potent markers, a conduit for the ‘in-between’, where transitions were possible, travelling between the present world into the supernatural even from the living to the dead. Later monastic sites would utilise this sacred geography, such as the original site of the Premonstratensian order of community priests who in 1182 A.D. at Eastbridge in Leiston built their church on a small low island set within extensive marshland on the coast, described as being the most physically isolated monastic house in the whole of East Anglia.

Sacral kings in times gone by performed ritual sacrifices, to coincide with greeting the two primary seasons of summer and winter, demonstrating that as king they were the creator of a new year, acting as a conduit between time and eternity. In many Indo-European societies, the myth of the warrior-god who must restore the harmonious balance over nature by restoring order over chaos was re-enacted at the Winter Solstice. The movements of the sun were the very template for cosmic and royal order.

At this time of year images of stags and reindeer are common. Stags are mythical creatures associated with the sun, recorded since at least the Bronze Age. One local custom performed in Abbots Bromley in September involves a team of dancers carrying reindeer antlers, mounted on deer heads made of wood. This ritual performance is believed to have originally been a midwinter ceremony, celebrating the return of the sun as male reindeer shed their antlers at the end of the mating season in early December.

Enjoy your tomorrow.