Of the sun, the moon and the Celts


Monday was what Judith Viorst would call “a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day” all around. Yet another blizzard, Vikings and their fans masking the pain of a game played in the arctic outdoors, two hours in a futile visit to the dentist, non-functioning printers (3 total), flights delayed and just about everything cancelled…

Clearly, it’s all the result of the first total lunar eclipse cum winter solstice in 400 years. The Celts would have understood, probably predicted, the implications of this total blackness, the 72 minutes of “totality” during which “an amber light will play across the snows of North America throwing landscapes into an unusual state of ruddy shadow” (quoted in an article by Stevie Ray Gilbert). Geoff Chester, who studies such things at the U.S. Naval Observatory, declares that “since Year 1, I can only find one previous instance of an eclipse matching the same calendar date as the solstice, that that is 1638 Dec. 21.”

Apocalyptic events like this send me to the Celts who had it right about weird happenings. It comes as no surprise to learn that the Celts developed rituals that reflect the phases of the moon in general and the solstices in particular. Celebration of the winter solstice focuses on the solstice sunrise illumination of the passage and chamber of Newgrange, a prehistoric monument located in County Meath in Eastern Ireland. Newgrange, built about three centuries BC, is speculated to have had religious significance, particularly regarding the afterlife. The stories focus on the fact that, at the time of the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber floor. The dramatic event lasts for seventeen minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December. Though today the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, calculations based on the precession of the earth show that 5,000 years ago, when Newgrange was first constructed, the first light would have entered exactly at sunrise. Though 21st Century tourists can experience a contrived reenactment of this phenomenon there is a lottery each year for tickets to be allowed into the tomb to view the actual winter solstice event.

One can only imagine the cataclysmic impact of the 2010 eclipse plus solstice convergence!

Exploration of the Celtic roots of the winter solstice serves a number of lovely purposes.

  • Terrible horrible no good very bad days don’t just happen.

  • Awareness of the past affirms that for thousands of years our ancestors have created elaborate rituals and sophisticated mathematical calculations to track the lunar/solar calendars.

  • We need to honor the traditions, the rituals and the impact of the cosmos.

  • Standing in the shaft of light that announces sunrise of the winter solstice at Newgrange would be an awesome experience.

  • The winter solstice marks the first hope of brighter and longer days to come.

  • Delving into the wonders of the Celtic past offers an extraordinary escape from the reality of a wretched winter evening in Minnesota circa 2010.