Winter Solstice at Newgrange

[Please scroll down to the bottom of the page for vocabulary notes and comments designed for ESL / EFL learners.]

The shortest day and the longest night of the year… The Winter Solstice is here! Far more than just an annual astronomical occurrence, the Winter Solstice has inspired countless seasonal customs, traditions and festivals in different cultures in the Northern Hemisphere, signaling the rebirth of nature and bringing the promise of new life. In this post, we’ll travel to Ireland to visit a site of special significance in the context of Solstice observances, also one of the oldest in the world.

About 65 km from Dublin, near the town of Drogheda, is the location of a prehistoric monument known as Newgrange. What at first glance seems to be a perfectly round hill with a stone facade, on closer look turns out to be a mound with a passageway leading to chambers deep inside its interior. Archaeologists have unearthed votive items and stone carvings that point to a religious use of the site; grave goods and human bones found there suggest that it also served as a tomb, but not much is known about the specifics. That’s not surprising, given that Newgrange was built over 5000 years ago, c. 3200 BCE, long before any written records that would have told us more about who built it and why exactly.

What we do know, both from Newgrange and other neolithic sites like it, is that some of these ancient structures were used to calculate time, more specifically to mark the main seasonal events. In the case of Newgrange, this becomes obvious precisely on the Winter Solstice: as the sun rises, the sunlight passes through a special opening above the doorway (known as a ‘roof-box’), illuminating the interior of the mound and the elaborate carving on one of the walls for about 17 minutes. 

Interestingly, this magical event has been rediscovered relatively recently, in 1967, when the Irish archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly, who was then working on the site, first noticed the curious alignment. The site is now in care of the Office of Public Works of the Republic of Ireland; carefully restored, it is only one such monument within a complex of similar but much smaller mounds known as the Boyne valley tombs (or in Irish Gaelic, Brú na Bóinne). 

Even if you happen to be in Ireland right now, due to COVID and other restrictions, you won’t be able to walk inside the mound at this time. However, regardless of where you are in the world, you can experience a bit of timeless winter magic by watching the live stream from within Newgrange. The official Heritage Ireland website will carry it from at 08:45 GMT / 09:45 CET on the 20th, 21st and 22nd of December (the recordings of these events will be made available on the National Monuments Service YouTube page.) 

If you miss any of these times and dates, you can find lots of videos on YouTube from the previous years, including fascinating documentaries about this fascinating monument. You can also find additional Winter Solstice resources on the Grammaticus Winter board on Pinterest.

VOCABULARY NOTES (in alphabetical order)

alignment (n.) comes from the verb to align = to place in a straight line

carving (n.) comes from the verb to carve = to cut a shape into wood or stone

chamber (n.) here means a closed space, a large room

grave goods (n.) is the term used by archaeologists for valuable items found buried by the dead in ancient tombs

illuminate (v.) = to light up, to make bright

mound (n.) – a small, rounded hill or pile of sand, stones or other material

observance (n.) here means following a religious / spiritual custom

occurrence (n.) = an event

record (n.) here means a piece of information written on paper or other material 

signal (v.) = to announce

unearth (v.) – to find something buried in the ground

votive (adj.) – something given to thank or honour a god (often collocates with the noun offering)

Cover photo credit: Adrian Campfield, Pixabay

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