Celebrating the winter solstice

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Written by Heather Elvidge

These cold, dwindling days are a sign that we’re approaching the solstice. On December 21 the sun will struggle halfway up the sky; by 4pm it’ll be tucked up in bed.

On the shortest day our sun reaches its lowest point at midday and stops its southwards drift at sunset. For a few days it seems to set in the same place; hence solstice, from the Latin for sun stands. After this the sunsets creep northwards again, although it’ll be January before we notice the increase in daylight.

When we were bound to nature’s round, the midwinter sun had more significance. Our forebears stoked up their fires, ate and drank as much as they could afford, and brought in evergreens, symbols of life in the midnight of the year.

The further north people lived, the more they strived to banish the cold and dark. Shetland’s Yule used to begin at the solstice and carry on to the end of January, with neighbours singing and dancing in each other’s houses.

Evidence for midwinter festivals in the rest of Britain is complex. But it does appear that the Scandinavians, Angles, Saxons, and Welsh observed the solstice and the sun’s return. Using a marker such as a distant hill or standing stone, anyone could follow the setting sun along the horizon, or note the position of star-groups at night, to predict when the solstice would occur.

In the Danelaw, the chunk of England that Alfred the Great created in 866 in the hope of keeping the Danes quiet, they called their festival Juul. The name has come down to us in Yorkshire dialect as Yule.

Although the Anglo-Saxons had converted to Christianity, in 1038 they were still using the old name, midwinter, for the Feast of the Nativity. Yet from the same year we have the first recorded usage of Cristes Maessan, Christmas.

Thomasing

December 21 is also the feast day of St Thomas. Legend tells how a king gave him a large sum to build a palace, but instead Thomas spent it on the poor. So on the saint’s day poor people would go “Thomasing”, asking their better-off neighbours for help. Flour, candles, fuel, or money were the usual items they received.

Most people were happy to help, because charitable giving was seen as a Christian’s duty. But as standards of living rose in the late nineteenth century, people’s attitude to the poor hardened. Thomasing and other similar customs came to be seen as begging, something to be discouraged.

But only a few Scrooges begrudged a modest redistribution of wealth in return for entertainment. Musicians, carol-singers, wassailers, sword dancers, and mummers with their knockabout plays all took the chance to earn extra during the festive period.

St Thomas’ Day is of interest to weather prophets. If it’s frosty, the old lore foretells a hard winter. And whichever way the wind is blowing on the 21st, will be the prevailing wind for the next three months.

So, bring in some holly – its beneficial magic protects the home at midwinter. Defy the shortest day by lighting a candle or switching on your Christmas lights. After the solstice darkness, comes the sun’s return.