Winter solstice: linking us, our ancestors and the universe


Tomorrow the 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 our ancestors and for people from various cultures it was a time for ceremony. They remembered the dead and also celebrated light and life and the ‘rebirth’ of the sun. There was a clear recognition that survival depended on the extent of the power of the sun shining through to the earth – a reality that will always be the case, and one that now has added significance for the future of humanity


Many of us associate the winter solstice with the Newgrange passage tomb in Co Meath. Each year, a small group of people selected by lottery enter the passage tomb in the hope of seeing the rising sun light up the chamber of the 5000-year-old Stone Age monument. A passage tomb on Slieve Gullion in Co Armagh also has a connection the winter solstice, but in its case, it is aligned with the setting sun.  Hopefully, those who visit the passage tombs tomorrow will experience the wonder of it all and get a sense of the connection between us, our ancestors and the universe.

The rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice shine through the roof box of the passage tomb at Newgrange and illuminate the chamber.

The celebration of the winter solstice at this time of year has diminished as the Christian celebration of Christmas takes place around the same time of year. However, some cultures around the world mark the solstice in a ceremonial way. Sometimes it can be a large communal celebration or festival – ‘Yuletide’ is what it was known as in Northern Europe. Across the world there are individuals and small groups of people who treat the winter solstice as a time of reflection – a time to let go of one’s troubles or darkness and embrace the new light and look positively to the future.


At the time of the building of Newgrange the human population on the planet was probably around 7 million people. Today it is over 7 billion people. The planet seems to have been able to cope reasonably well for many years but the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil have been a game changer. While there have been certain positive benefits and prosperity for many people, our atmosphere has become ‘poisoned’ by excessive greenhouse gases resulting in accelerated climate change. It has also hastened the wipe out of many species of wildlife.


The most recent effort to ‘detox’ the planet has been the ‘Climate Talks’ in Poland. The news on Saturday last was that the talks ended with an agreement on a range of measures that will make many elements of the 2015 Paris climate pact operational in 2020.The aim is to limit global temperature rises to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels – they are now just over 1C. The deal was welcomed by Richard Bruton, Minister for Climate Action and he added that all corners of society must “face up to the challenges”. However, the reaction of the Irish based campaign group Stop Climate Chaos to the outcome of the talks was that we got “baby steps when we needed a giant leap”.  Jennifer Morgan of Greenpeace said that while it was a good first step, it was morally unacceptable because it neglected the interests of impoverished nations.

The climate talks were attended by a number of Irish non-governmental organisations. One group was An Taisce. During the talks Ian Lumley of An Taisce was critical of the role of ESB International, an Irish State-owned company subsidiary providing the engineering and project management services for a new coal-fired power plant in the Philippines. The project is being fought by a range of civil society organisations in the Philippines, who stated: “We cannot allow our communities to suffer from the double whammy of coal-fired power plant projects that come in the form of negative health and environmental impacts.”


Ian Lumley of An Taisce showing his support for climate campaigners from the Philippines at the climate talks in Poland

The challenges ahead on the climate front are great and they require efforts by everyone. This means not just Governments around the world. It includes businesses, the Churches, local authorities, voluntary groups, schools, the media etc. The schools in Ireland that have been involved in the Green Schools initiative have already given the issue a particular focus. Now it is up to all other organisations and individuals to do likewise and become leaders in climate action.


As we watch the sun rising and setting over these solstice days, it is perhaps a time to consider what our planet will be like in the future and the part we are playing in determining that future. We are told by the scientists that we have twelve years left in which to act decisively. The words of Alex Steffen, a writer on planetary thinking gives us some hope. He says: “A question-assertion I often hear: Isn’t it too late? ‘Too late’, here, meaning a state of affairs where our destabilisation of the planet and limited human progress have doomed us inevitably to the most catastrophic of outcomes. The simple answer is: No. It’s not too late”. However, Alex added: “The biggest fights are all still ahead of us—and the distance between the best futures still available and the worst catastrophes our inaction could bring on is truly vast.”

Perhaps the best gift to future generations is the one which involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock or the burning of fossil fuels. Another option is to plant a tree – it will repair some of the damage already caused. Also, why not just simply share the wonder of nature in the local area with our loved ones.   Have a Happy Christmas / Yuletide.


A Poem

When I fly

I see with my dreamers eye,

against a backdrop of grey sky,

birds flirt with invisible edges

and land on invisible ledges.


Can I trust my dreamers eye

against a backdrop of grey sky?

If I flirt with invisible edges,

will I land on invisible ledges?

© Michael Harris – November 2018

Our thanks to Michael for providing the poem. Michael is from Mullyash, Castleblayney and is now based in London.



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