Alban Arthan, Light of Winter in Welsh, cometh on December 21 this year at 5:44 A. M. for me in Central Virginia (1). Winter Soltice, our modern and much less poetic name for the shortest day of the year, is arguably one of the oldest festivals celebrated by humankind and probably one of the two most important, the other being Summer Soltice (Alban Hefin). It doesn't seem all that important to us today because we know that the cycle of the year will continue and that the days will shortly begin to lengthen once again. Our science has eliminated the mystery and fear that accompanied the shortest day of the year, and joy the followed when days started to once again lengthen.
I invite you put yourself in the place of a person in an ancient Celtic community, one who wasn't sure that the sun would once again return higher and higher in the sky. What if, after Alban Arthan, the days continuted to get shorter until eventually we descended into perpetual cold and darkness. How would you "celebrate" the longest night of the year? How would you celebrate the sunrise when you saw that the course of the sun had changed direction and that the sun was rising a little bit earlier and a little bit higher into the sky?
You might try to visit Newgrange. Newgrange (Brú na Bhoinne) is a Neolithic passage tomb and temple structure in the valley of the Boyne River in Ireland. Its estimated to have been constructed about 5,200 years ago making it oldeer than the Pyramids of Gizeh and Stonehenge. Newgrange is aligned so that the entrance faces the winter solstice sunrise. When the Sun reaches the correct position over the horizon its rays shine through a roof box or window and snake down a 57 foot-long passage. When the rays of the sun have traveled the entire length of the passage they illuminate a three-fold spiral carved into a large stone. The movement of the rays of the sun from the roof box window to the spiral takes about 15 minutes. This alignment has been esoterically interpreted as the insertion of a ray of light by the Sun God into the womb of Mother Earth bringing about the creation of new life in spring.
Our celebration of Yule centers around the lighting of the Yule log. We place a log in the center our our fireplace. According to tradition the log must come from one's own land or be a gift, and it must not be purchased. We harvest the log from a dead fall in the forest that is our back yard. The log is ignited with the remaining piece of last year's Yule log. Thus the light is passed on from one year to another. Rather than ignite a large fire we try to keep the Yule log smoldering slowly for the next 12 days (which means we take turns adding our breath to the fire from time-to-time before it is extinguished. The ashes are stowed away so that when Spring returns we can mix them with the seeds that we are going to plant. This symbolically distributes the the power of the Sun over our garden. Of course we keep the last bit of the log so that it can be used the next year to ignite the new log.
As you may know from my old blogs, I start every day with a shamanic invocation. Part of that invocation is to thank Father Sky (Inititayta) and Mother Earth (pachamama) for their gifts and support and to call their energy into my day. Alban Arthan is a good time to reflect more on the meaning of the Sun in your life. Not only does the Sun sustain life on Mother Earth by providing heat and light, it marks that passage of time, and sybolically it is a symbol of steadfastness. Although its position in the sky changes it has risen every day of my life and yours. It is always there giving its gifts.
May we too be steadfast like the Sun.
Peace my friends and Happy Yule,
Notes: Timeanddate.com has a nice Soltice calculator. You can find it here.
I'm Dr. Dave, a modern druid. I lived and worked in Bolivia and Peru for over six years, where I and was trained by Andean Shamans, and today practice Druidcraft and contemporary shamanism.