The harvest is over, the trees are wearing white coats of jagged hoarfrost, and the days are at their darkest. All seems bleak and hopeless in the depths of winter, with spring too distant to contemplate and autumnal fruits a mere memory. Our ancestors suffered hardship we cannot begin to imagine, but pessimists aside, most found reasons to bring cheer into their lives, whether it was a feast to revel in the end of short days and long nights, or rituals to honour the gods responsible for a fruitful year ahead.
The winter solstice was celebrated long before the invention of clocks and calendars, before the Romans, Vikings, Celts, or Normans. This celestial period was a turning point in the year for tribal cultures the world over, being a time to set down differences and work out trade alliances, wedding matches, pay tribute to lives passed and share stories of wisdom to the young.
Ancient festivals were rarely restricted to a single night, but stretched across December, when the winter sun aligned with certain stones set out as markers for their religious or traditional practices. This is particularly the case with Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, UK, where evidence from archaeologists based at Sheffield University, suggest that the winter solstice was just as important to our Neolithic forebears as the summer alignments.
Data from the analysis of livestock remains found in dense clusters, led Professor Mike Parker Pearson and his team to decipher the activities taking place at Stonehenge some 4500 years ago. The results of their investigations suggest that not only were huge midwinter feasts held at the site, but that the animals were walked or transported for hundreds of miles to be slaughtered for the celebrations. The data indicates that they originated from the west country or west Wales, thus supporting the idea that tribes from all across the British Isles would meet at this important time of the year.
Since the stones at Stonehenge and the timber circles at Durrington Walls are aligned to both the summer and winter solstices, it’s not too far a stretch to say that these were the most critical points of the year for ancient man. Without Roman calendars or sundials, a simple count of the full moons from each solstice would help them to plan the harvests, plant new seed or lie in wait for migrating species to swell their reserves of dried meats and pelts.
For the summer solstice, around the 21st June, the rising sun shines behind the Heel Stone, illuminating the central part of the circle. Sadly, the tall stones that would have framed the setting sun around the 21st December are no longer standing upright. In their heyday, the last rays of the winter sun would have streamed between the narrow gap in the massive trilithon.
There are some experts who assert that the winter festivals were of greater importance to that of the summer solstice, citing the size of the feasting pits and quantity of discarded food and pottery in the nearby midden piles. Professor Parker Pearson makes the bold suggestion that Stonehenge was likely a site for rituals surrounding ancestors and the lives of the dead, partly due to the number of cremation interments found in the ditches surrounding the circle and the abundance of burial mounds in the immediate area.
By comparison, Parker Pearson claims that the Neolithic site, Durrington Walls, situated about two miles from Stonehenge, showed signs of timber henges and intermittent settlement activity. His assessment of the data from these excavations is that this was most likely where the builders of Stonehenge lived while they were working on or altering the structure of the circle and that timber circles were more probably associated with rituals for the living.
Over thousands of years, the cultures and religions have changed but the need for human interaction at this cold and lonely time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere has not. The difference for most, is that enforced social distancing this year has restricted what would otherwise be a festive and happy celebration, whether you are Christian, Hindu, Jew or have no specific faith at all. The loss of so many loved ones has sharpened our focus on vulnerabilities and left many of us fearful.
Might it be time to forge a new way to gather and rejoice? Shouldn't we celebrate the silver clouds that have illuminated this tumultuous time; the courage and tenacity of our healthcare and service workers, the resurgence of the community spirit, the impulse to help those less fortunate, and the value placed on time spent with our families?
Whether you are feasting with your loved ones via an internet connection or sitting on a frozen patio outside your granny’s house sharing lame cracker jokes through the window, I think it’s fair to say that the holiday season of 2020 will go down in history. Let’s not make it all bad.