Written by Heather Elvidge
On the 21st the midday sun will struggle to its lowest point in the sky, before sliding towards the horizon again. This is the day of the winter solstice, the midnight of the year in the northern lands.
On the shortest day, sunset stops its southwards drift along the western horizon, hence solstice, from the Latin for “sun stands”. But it will be a few weeks before we notice any increase in day length.
The midwinter sun had a special significance for our ancestors, bound as they were to nature’s round. At Maes Howe on Orkney, a 5000-years-old burial mound is aligned so that the setting sun at the solstice sends a shaft of light along a passage, lighting up a large burial chamber. Of similar age is the huge mound at Newgrange in County Meath, designed to allow a beam from the rising sun to illuminate an inner chamber. In England, Stonehenge lines up with the winter solstice.
Since those ancient times generations have stoked up their fires at midwinter. Not surprisingly, banishing the dark and defying the cold grew more important the further north people lived. In Shetland and Orkney, settled by Vikings from Norway, the Yule celebrations stretched from the solstice to the end of January.
December 21 is also the feast day of St Thomas. According to legend, a king entrusted Thomas with a large sum to build a palace, but instead the saint gave it to the needy. So on the 21st poor people would go “thomasing”, visiting their better-off neighbours to ask for something to help them through the winter. Flour, candles, fuel, or money were given according to local custom, up until the late 19th century.
Old weather lore says that if St Thomas’ day is frosty, a hard winter lies ahead. And whichever way the wind blows, that will be the prevailing direction for the next three months.
The 21st is the traditional time to bring in holly and ivy, evergreen symbols of continuing life.
Holly, linked with beneficial magic, was often planted near the home to protect it from fire and other misfortune. Holly timber was a popular choice for thresholds to keep malign forces at bay. For the same reason a holly wreath was hung on the front door at Christmas, yet midwinter was the only time that leaves from the living tree were allowed indoors.
Holly was the main choice for decorating churches, along with ivy, laurel, box, bay and rosemary. We know this because parish accounts from the middle ages show payments for evergreen decorations. When Christians saw the prickly holly leaves they were reminded of Christ’s crown of thorns, and the red berries represented His blood.
While its bold prickles made holly a male symbol, ivy was considered female. This wasn’t just because of its clinging habit, but because ivy was seen as steadfast and true. A song from the 15th century has a verbal duel between the Holly Boy and Ivy Girl, which holly naturally wins.
An old carol confirms the supremacy of holly:
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.