Winter Solstice – a time for reflection

21st December is the winter solstice, the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. For centuries it has been a special day for peoples and cultures worldwide. As the daylight lengthens after today and a New Year approaches we reflect on the winter solstice and consider some challenges that lies ahead for humanity.

We associate the winter solstice with the Newgrange passage tomb and the rising sun illuminating the chamber of the 5000 year old Stone Age monument A few weeks ago a Winter Solstice Festival was held in South Armagh and it included a lecture entitled ‘Facing the Sun’. Delivered by archaeologist Frank Pendergast, it focused on the 72 passage tombs in Ireland that are ‘aligned’ with either the winter or summer solstice.

One of the passage tombs aligned with the winter solstice setting sun is the Slieve Gullion (South Cairn) in South Armagh.   It is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland or the UK and is also known as The Calliagh Berra’s House. Up to 22nd December guided walks for visitors to the tomb are available. See The cairn is just one of the features in the culturally and ecologically rich landscape of the ‘Ring of Gullion’.

View from inside the chamber of the South Cairn on Slieve Gullion, Co. Armagh. On the winter solstice, the chamber is illuminated by the setting sun.  

The passage tombs of Newgrange and Slieve Gullion were built to honour the dead. The builders had a close affinity with the skies, the earth and the changing seasons. Aligning their monuments with the sun at solstice expressed their respect for the power of the sun which brought them life through the food it helped provide.


The word Solstice means ‘sun standing still’ and is said to represent a rebirth and renewal of energies both for humans and for nature. It is claimed that there is a link between some pre Christian traditions and Christmas. Germanic people marked the winter solstice by a celebration called ‘Yule’ or ‘Yuletide’. The Yule log was a full length tree that was taken into the house and burned over the festive period. Now a ‘yule log’ generally means a cake or dessert served around Christmas time!


So as we look forward to the daylight lengthening in the northern part of the planet what future lies ahead for the whole planet and humanity. While people are generally living longer, the life support systems of the planet are under threat. The earth’s population of 7.4 billion people uses the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to provide the resources needed and to absorb waste. The chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans has been altered by deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 from burning fossil fuels and methane from billions of cattle are resulting in climate change and the likelihood of frequent extreme weather events.

Conflict and human migration are happening in various countries but many other countries are reluctant to accept refugees. The international community finds it difficult to resolves many of the numerous emergencies throughout the world. However, aid agencies are working hard in many countries and rely of donations from various sources. Here in Ireland, we value our relatively peaceful society. Employment levels are high but there are problems in our health and housing services. On the energy front, an SEAI report last week said: “Ireland’s energy use is not reducing fast enough”.

Globally, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 global goals that were signed in 2015 and are to be achieved by 2030. These goals address poverty, hunger, health, education, climate change, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, environment and social justice.

Dóchas, the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations has spearheaded a Coalition 2030 initiative – an alliance of groups committed to and working towards upholding Ireland’s commitment to achieving the SDGs at home in Ireland and in over 50 countries by 2030. The group says that an Action Plan on the SDGs from the Irish Government is long overdue. Hopefully 2018 will see this important step being taken by our Government and that it will also involve Ireland doing its fair share on climate action / emissions reduction and protecting our disappearing biodiversity.

As individuals much of what we do and what we buy has an impact on the rest of the world. As communities we can come together to be more resilient and also support the many non -Governmental organisations that work to alleviate poverty and tackle social / environmental injustice. In Ireland, these organisations include Trocaire, St Vincent de Paul, and Development Perspectives.

Transition Groups like Transition Monaghan highlight sustainability issues and promote community resilience initiatives ranging from community garden projects to energy reduction initiatives. We welcome new members in 2018. See contact details below.

A list of events on in January can be found here 

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