Simon Fraser Photography | Ash tree at sunrise in midwinter, South Tyne valley
Simon Fraser Photography | Ash tree at sunrise in midwinter, South Tyne valley

Today is Midwinter, the standstill, the solstice – that’s what solstice means, standstill. It’s the time when for 3 days the sun appears to rise at the same point on the horizon.

Normally, except at the two solstice times, the sun rises at a slightly different point along the horizon each day. From midwinter to midsummer it rises a little further north each day until at the spring equinox it rises due east. It goes on from then until midsummer rising a little further north each day until midsummer when again it stands still for three days, from the 21st until the 24th/25th June when it begins to move southward again. It continues to rise a little further south each day from midsummer to the autumn equinox when, again, it rises due east. It goes on rising further south each day until midwinter when it reaches its furthest southern rising, so giving us the shortest day, and then stands still on the horizon for three days before beginning to move northward again on 24th/25th December.

We called these two solstice seasons Turnaround in the villages where I grew up and the 25th December is Sun-Return … the time when the sun returns to going north and so gives us longer days and more light. We called the 24th June Sun-Go-Down signifying that from then on the days will get shorter.

Most people don’t notice this nowadays as they live in cities full of light pollution and are regulated by clocks and mobile phones; they often dislike the dark and wish for long balmy sunny days all the time. Why? Most likely because they feel themselves trapped in boring stressful jobs in order to make money to pay for all the commitments they have which they understand as “normal life”. They’re miserable and stressed, want to run away but cannot see how to. And the result? They walk the treadmill of “normal life” and never understand Life, the Universe and Everything that surrounds them.

It wasn’t quite as bad as this even 50 or 60 years ago when I was growing up. Even townsfolk then often understood the skies and the weather and the seasons. We even did this stuff at the village primary school I went to … and where is it now on the standard curriculum? How many children, or their parents, know this nowadays?

Some people even think our Iron Age ancestors thought the sun stood still for 12 days … thus making a complete hotchpotch of the whole catch-up of the Julian to the Gregorian calendars of 1582! Britain didn’t actually make the catch-up until 1752 so we had 11 days to remove and this is what makes our festival of 12th Night on 6th January, it was Old Christmas Day and is still called that in many country places. Seriously, do you think Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age people with the engineering and astronomical skills to build Mine How, New Grange, Stonehenge and the stone circles really couldn’t see where and when the sun rose? Do you think they were so benighted they thought the sun might never rise again? Puh-leese!

Such idiotic attitudes came after people were cowed under an authority that told them weren’t allowed to know their stories in their own language, nor their holy sites, nor their wise folk and who burned and drowned and hanged the wise folk because they were a threat to the authority. If you are not allowed to know reality you become ignorant and fearful, you believe daft stories of devils and of evil powers that want to drag you down. We haven’t half got ourselves into a silly mess … don’t you think?

Our ancestors didn’t have these problems. For best part of a million years we lived well and peaceably with the Earth and her seasons, knowing them from observation, from being with them. Then some nutter invented farming … and so created the concept of ownership, and so we began the downhill slide that has brought us to where we are now.

But even so, for thousands of years during the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, we still worked well with the land, the Earth and her seasons even if we did also fight and kill each other over who should own what field! We still took time to stand still ourselves at the two solstice times, to sit-with and look at what had happened over the past six months, to give thanks and feast in celebration, and to promise to do better where we’d screwed up. How many of the 7.5 billion of us on the Earth do that now, at this time?

So how’s about it? Will you be spending the next three days – intermittently – considering how life has been for the past six months and what you might do to make more joy for yourself and those around you? I do this; I give myself some quiet time and sit-with a slowly growing list. The list has two columns, one of things that make me joyful and the other things that make me sad. I leave the list around the house, with a pen, and add to each side as thoughts come to me. Each evening I spend time just sitting with it, looking at it, considering and giving time to each of the things on each side of the list. The sad ones quite often make me cry so I give them the tears they need and I also ask them what I might be able to do to help. Yes, really, if you ask things, things on a list, how you can help you’ll be surprised at the answers you get, at the ideas which come! It’s not nuts to do this, it’s really old common sense and it stops you trying to “project manage” the world from your own tiny, blinkered and likely prejudiced perceptions! You give time and space to otherness, otherworld, everything other than yourself … and you listen, rather than trying to tell all the time! And you do this with the joyful column too, thanking and laughing and smiling and maybe giving tears of joy for the wondrous things that have happened in the past six months. And asking how they need your help too.

Give it a go, try it for yourself. It really does work … it’s natural magic and doesn’t need any spells or paraphernalia or stuff or rituals. And it’s always done in a sacred place for what part of the Earth is not sacred? All it needs is you, and your willingness to give time to the past and to the future, and so enable the present.

My thanks to Simon Fraser Photography for the picture “Ash tree at sunrise in midwinter, South Tyne valley”