December 23, 2010
The gathering that celebrated the winter solstice at Newgrange this week was an illustration of the pre-Christian foundations behind the festival of Christmas, writes Science Editor DICK AHLSTROM
THE FACT that Christmas occurs within days of the winter solstice is no accident. The mid-winter Yuletide celebrations mirror those of our ancient ancestors, who more than 5,200 years ago gathered together outside the passage grave at Newgrange to celebrate the turning of the year. Both celebrations signal momentous occurrences of importance to the societies that participated in them. The Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Christ, while Newgrange in Co Meath was built to pinpoint the shortest day of the year.
“All religions ultimately go back to natural cycles,” says Prof Gabriel Cooney of University College Dublin.
A festival enjoyed by our Neolithic ancestors persisted, passing through Roman traditions and on to Christianity, he says. “Christmas was specifically tied to the winter solstice. The key point that Newgrange does is mark the turning point of the year.”
He has no doubt that the solstice certainly carried “religious significance” for those who attended and for those select few allowed to enter the passage grave to witness the moment when the first rays of the rising solstice sun penetrate deep into the hillside to illuminate the rear wall.
“I don’t think people were coerced to go to Newgrange,” says Prof Cooney, professor of Celtic archaeology and head of the school of archaeology at UCD. People wanted to be there, they wanted to participate, he believes.
At the time the local population near Newgrange might have numbered 1,000. They grew crops and reared stock and were wholly dependent on the fertility of the land. “The winter and summer solstices and the equinoxes were key turning points in the year,” Prof Cooney says.
It is unlikely, however, that the people living close to Newgrange could have built it themselves. It would have demanded a much larger social engagement and people from much further afield to assemble the thousands of tonnes of soil and rock needed to build the huge structure.