The Winter Solstice, Sunday, December 21st.
This Sunday is known as the 'Winter Solstice', the shortest day of the year. From Monday, things are going to get a little brighter each day. The sun will come up a few minutes earlier each day, and stay up a few minutes longer.
The attached photo is from Newgrange. The annual Winter Solstice sun show will be held there tomorrow night. The word Solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the seasonal movement of the Sun's path (as seen from Earth) comes to a stop before reversing direction. Five thousand years ago Stone age builders engineered Newgrange (Boyne Valley, Co Meath) so that sunlight could enter the vaulted chamber at dawn on the shortest days of the year. On clear Solstice mornings, the chamber at the end of the passage is illuminated and bathed in a wonderful golden glow.
Newgrange was constructed over 5,000 years ago (about 3,200 B.C.), making it older than Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It was built during the Neolithic or New Stone Age by a farming community that prospered on the rich lands of the Boyne Valley. It was built as an Ancient Temple, a place of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, much as present day cathedrals are places of prestige and worship where dignitaries may be laid to rest.
Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun as seen in this photo. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a opening called a roof box. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the winter solstice.
At dawn, from December 19th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.
The accuracy of Newgrange as a time telling device is remarkable when one considers that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. The intent of its builders was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new year. In addition, it may have served as a powerful symbol of the victory of life over death.
Each year the winter solstice event attracts much attention at Newgrange. Many gather at the ancient tomb to wait for dawn, as people did 5,000 years ago. So great is the demand to be one of the few inside the chamber during the solstice that there is a free annual lottery. For any who have experienced it, it is an extraordinary feeling to wait in the darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end.