The Story of Solstice at the Lindsays: Music, Frolic, Reverence, and a Puppy

Solstice 2009: Revisited

We took this photo in Newgrange somewhere around 2000.
3:38 a.m. Plymouth; 8:38 a.m., Dublin. At that moment in Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland, the sun rose over the hills across the Boyne River and shined its first rays into the little space called a "light box" above the doorway of a massive burial mound built around 3,200 BC and rediscovered in 1699. The sun's golden rays (that is, if it was sunny, and it being Ireland... well, you never know) crept down a chamber and, for 17 minutes, they illuminated a stone cruciform chamber that holds three small spaces, one to the front, and one to each side. This happens every year on Solstice, and for a few days on either side of it. At all other times, the chamber stands black.

Hundreds of people were at Newgrange this morning, standing in the gloom outside the massive circular mound. They were winners of a lottery, as every year the folks at Newgrange draw 50 names from some 30,000 applications, and the winners are given the opportunity to observe the sunrise at the megalithic site. Only 16 are permitted to enter the chamber.

In 3,200 B.C. when the place was built, how many were standing there, and why? No one knows for sure what Newgrange and other megalithic structures like it were used for: burial tombs, temples, or astronomical observatories? If a burial mound, what did the remains of these apparently VIP dead farmers do with the returning light? Write letters? Patch up holes in their rapidly decomposing tunic? Ignore it, and instead stay indoors to binge-watch Netflix?

Either way, renewal would surely be the order of the day, even for dead farmers. Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and after it, every day lengthens by just a few minutes. It's easy to imagine why this would be a sacred event in a country whose days last just 7 1/2 hours at this time of year. Light in the darkness.

Matthew 4:16 comes to mind: "The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." Early Christians in Ireland were wise to place their important Christian events in line with pre-Christian tradition. Christ's arrival at Christmas as a light in the darkness, as God-comes-to-Earth, makes perfect sense at Solstice. It is midwinter's day, the return of light in the Celtic season in the heart of Samhain, the dark season when the Celts believed that the veil was thinnest between this world and the other. Good time for the heavens to arrive on Earth.

And what does this mean? We pray a little with our morning coffee? Catch the sunrise on the beach? Fold the laundry more carefully?  

On many years, we've celebrated this tradition in our home—this sense of renewal amid darkness—inviting friends over and playing music til the wee hours. This week, though... well, we've played so much music this week that we need today to rest and restore. No better day for that than today. Maybe we'll make our own music. Maybe we'll get a puppy. (Actually, we will get a puppy.) And one tradition we probably can manage is to adorn the home with greens—another pre-Christian tradition that has been appropriated by Christmas. I once read that the Celts would keep the solstice greens in place until Feb. 2, the transitional day of the new Celtic season, Imbolc. We're not likely to try that, as we will be puppy-proofing. God help us.

A very happy solstice to you, and wishing you joy, renewal, and a few puppy kisses on this the shortest day!

For much more information on Newgrange, visit