Monday, 6 January 2014

The new year

More than just a passage tomb,  above the
entrance to Newgrange in Ireland is the 
roof-box which allows the dawn sunlight
to enter the inner chamber at the winter
solstice. Wikimedia image photo: spudmurphy
The new year is calculated differently by various cultures, but the commonest is January 1 according to the Gregorian calendar. Perhaps the earliest time of the new year's celebration was the winter solstice. Five thousand years ago, a few selected people probably got to see the first rays of the sun enter the inner chamber at Newgrange tomb (more properly a temple) in Co. Meath, Ireland. The tradition continues and a small number of lucky people got to see the sunlight enter the inner chamber at the last winter solstice. Of course, it is often cloudy and the last time anyone saw the sunlight enter the tomb on that day was in 2007.

I have never been a great fan of the new year's celebrations. Perhaps January 1 has no mythological connections for me -- nothing to be reminded of by that date. Nor is there any cosmological significance to January 1st. It all seems so arbitrary.

Solstice times have always struck me as significant, though. I have to be general about that because the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere is the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. But wherever you are it is experiential: it is either the longest night or the shortest at that time.

Here, the winter solstice is noted as "the first day of winter", something that has no bearing on reality in most of Canada where the winter weather arrives much earlier. In Calgary, which is not to far south (latitude wise) to Newgrange, the winter solstice does seem to be about the middle of winter. We often have bitterly cold weather and snow starting in November and by the end of February the worst is usually over. But we also have a saying here: "If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes". I have seen a mountain road blocked by snow in August and the badlands having warm summery weather in early November -- you never know what you are going to get here. Over the last few decades, the weather here seems to be getting milder in the winter and wetter in the summer. Last summer was the wettest of all and the ground could not absorb all of that rain and we had the most devastating flood in our history. This started just after the summer solstice.

So, for me, the New Year really starts, just as at Newgrange, at the winter solstice. It is a phenomenon that can be experienced (either as summer or winter) anywhere as it is an obvious cosmological event. What we do not know is whether, at Newgrange five thousand years ago, it was a cosmological event with religious overtones or a religious event with cosmological overtones -- we have no evidence of gods at that time and place.

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