All at the BDO bid you a Merry Midwinter, wherever and however you may be celebrating it, whether at some ancient sacred site, in the silent heart of a forest, at home with your family and friends or in gaol. Celebrations at this time take many forms, from group ritual to a shared special meal. Most of us decorate our houses with greenery and sparkly things, most of us exchange presents with our nearest and dearest. Many of us give in to the temptation to eat and drink too much. All of these things have the blessing of antiquity, having been common among our European ancestors throughout recorded history, while many are common to cultures well beyond Europe. In Britain, we know that our prehistoric ancestors celebrated Midwinter. The remains of great Midwinter feasts have recently come to light in the great Neolithic enclosure at Durrington Walls, while the nearby temple of Stonehenge is aligned on both the Midsummer sunrise and the Midwinter sunset. Other Neolithic Midwinter alignments are found as far North as the Orkney Islands off the North coast of Scotland and at the Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange) tomb-shrine in Ireland. Clearly, this time of year has been important to us for a long time.
In the historic period, we find a number of Midwinter celebrations devoted to a range of deities. The Roman Empire combined a number of them into a festival celebrating the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, a deity designed to incorporate several gods of the sun or of light that existed in various parts of the Empire. In Britain, our local god reborn each Midwinter was most widely known as Mabon ap Modron, which simply means Child, son of Mother. The picture here shows the Lochmaben Stone on the Scottish borders, ancient focus of local gatherings, perhaps dedicated to the Mabon. Under this name, he seems to have been an avatar of our god of light, Lleu Llaw Gyffes, whose name means Light of the Steady Hand, noted for, among other things, making an impossible bow-shot at a wren when still a small child. The wren has strong associations with both Midwinter and with Druids, as well as being the folkloric King of the Birds. Lleu's mother is Arianrhod, whose name means Silver Wheel, leading to speculation that she represents the Milky Way, though there is a constellation bearing her name; Caer Arianrhod, aka Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. For the full story of Lleu's birth, life, death and rebirth, see the Mabinogi story of Math, son of Mathonwy (scroll down to section II).
Another notable association between Druids and Midwinter centres on the plant, mistletoe. Pliny the Elder famously refers to a ceremony in which Druids cut mistletoe from an oak tree using a golden sickle. Midwinter seems an obvious time to do this as mistletoe is much easier to locate on its host trees after the leaves have fallen from them. Incidentally, a goldsmith friend assures me that, contrary to popular belief, it is quite possible to harden gold to produce an edge capable of cutting misteltoe.
It's worth noting that recorded pagan celebrations of Midwinter take place not on the day of the solar standstill, i.e. the winter solstice, but a few days later, on December 25th, the first day on which the sun's rising place on the horizon is seen to move again after the solstice. Celebrating the birth of a god-child on December 25th may sit uneasily with some modern Pagans for obvious reasons, yet the fact is, it's yet another celebration that Christians copied from us! We should not, therefore, feel in the least bit awkward about claiming it back. His rebirth, of course, is a symbolic acknowledgement of the time when the sun's rising position begins to move again, giving the first indication of the forthcoming return of life and light to the land in spring and summer. In the depths of the Northern hemisphere's Midwinter cold and damp and the darkness of the period around the solstice's longest night, that longed for return of light is, indeed, something to celebrate.
Blessings to one and all,
Greywolf and all at the BDO /|\