Strange myths surround the shortest day of the year, helping our ancestors to explain the turning of the seasons. Here Francis Kaye brings you some of the legends surrounding the Winter Solstice.
Many people, like myself, look forward to the shortest day in the year simply because it heralds a time when darkness comes a little later each evening. The Winter Solstice will soon be here (in the Northern hemisphere), marking the longest night and shortest day of the year.
Contrary to popular belief, the winter solstice isn’t a day. It’s the specific moment in time when the sun is above the Tropic of Capricorn, a circle of latitude below the equator. This is the southern-most point the sun ever reaches from our perspective on Earth (at the same time, residents of the Southern hemisphere are enjoying their longest day and shortest night).
Peoples all over the world have long revered this annual astronomical occurrence as a time to bid farewell to lengthy, dark nights and to welcome the impending return of the sun. While the winter solstice usually occurs on 21st December, this year in Ireland it will be at Solstice 2019 will be at 04:19 on Sunday 22nd December.
Some say that the myth of the Holly King may have inspired the story of Santa Claus. In ancient Britain, these two rival gods were said to be locked in constant battle. During the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year) the Oak King is at the height of his power, but his rival begins to take control as autumn begins.
The Winter Solstice marks a point in the year when the Holly King is in full control but also the moment when he begins to lose his grip on power, allowing the Oak King to begin his rise and start the process which leads to spring and the return of life to the world.
This old myth celebrates the turning of the seasons and is interesting because it would have reminded ancient pagans basking in the summer heat that a grim winter would inevitably darken the world – as well as allowing them to look forward to springtime as they shivered through a bleak December.
Hungary: The Miraculous Deer: Csodaszarvas inspired the name of a weird Hungarian hippy folk band called Galloping Wonder Stag. This remarkable beast is an important figure in the Hungarian people’s myths about their origins.
Two brothers called Hunor and Magor spotted a white stag whilst out hunting. They tried to pursue it but could never catch up, eventually settling down and founding the dynasties which eventually became the Huns and the Hungarian people.
It is claimed that ancient Hungarians believed that December 21 was the day when Csodaszarvas gathered up the sun in its horns and carried it into the New Year, where it would once again light up the world and bring plants back to life.