It’s very easy to get caught up in the commercialism of Christmas. Shops are jammed, pubs are filled with revellers and there’s almost no escape from the Christmas music. However, amid what is viewed as a mainly Christian celebration, there is an ancient pagan tradition that is very much alive: the celebration of the Winter Solstice.
Long before the birth of Christ, people in this land and all through Europe, paid homage to the changing of the seasons marked by the winter solstice. This was the shortest day of the year and the longest night, signifying the death of the old year and celebrating the birth of the new. This is the true roots of Christmas, the yuletide celebration. A time of rebirth and renewal, celebrating the journey from darkness back into the light.
For the last six years, a Winter Solstice celebration has taken place in Smithfield, in the heart of Dublin city. Organised by Sli An Chroi (Pathway of the Heart), it’s an evening of storytelling, song, drumming, dancing, fire and colour and is an experience not to be missed.
I’ve attended the celebration with my daughter for the last three years and it’s fast becoming a much-loved pre-Christmas tradition. Last year, the evening began in the National Museum, Collins Barracks. Children were invited to make maracas and other noisemakers for the coming parade while adults could enjoy tea, coffee and cakes while making ivy wreaths to wear. Ancient stories were told, traditional music was played and there was even a short ceili.
Everyone then moved outside where the ceremonial fire was lit in a large bowl to be carried to Smithfield on the shoulders of male volunteers. One of the most memorable things about last year is the sound of drumming echoing around the former parade ground while the fire was being lit. It felt primal, ancient and magical. Led by colourfully dressed women and children portraying the sun, ice, light and other beings and flanked by colourful banners, the parade set out to walk to Smithfield. People carried lanterns, danced, played drums and the children shook their handmade maracas, making plenty of noise as the parade made its way up the quays, shepherded by volunteers and Gardai.
On reaching Smithfield, everyone had the chance to cast their ‘withys’ (wooden sticks with their wishes for the coming year written on them) into the fire. The fire was then raised in a climax of cheering before being carefully and respectfully extinguished.
This year, the Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration will once again take place in Smithfield, starting at the Generator Hostel from 5:30 pm. It’s a completely free, family-friendly event and all are welcome. Even if you can’t make it, you can send your ‘withy’ via Twitter @DublinSolstice, #dublinsolsticewishes and it will be added to the ceremonial fire on your behalf.
For more details on the event, visit the Dublin Winter Solstice Facebook event page.