Quirky. In my younger years, "quirky" would describe my delight in the arrival of the shortest day of the year. No one actually celebrates the Winter Solstice. At least not in my recent memory. If you did, you were rather - quirky.
I could never quite understand why December 21st brought a sense of wonder. Being a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, it could have something to do with the fact that December 22nd brought with it one minute more of daylight. But the date always seemed to hold more of an inner rejoicing rather than having 60 seconds additional of daylight.
More likely than not, my celtic ancestors celebrated the arrival of the Winter Solstice with bonfires, bringing in of the greens and music and dancing to celebrate the arrival of the Oak King.
The Holly King and the Oak King were twin gods seen as one entity. Each of the gods rule for half of the year, fight for the favor of a goddess and dies. But the defeated twin is not truly dead but merely withdraws for six months. The belief of some was that the defeated twin retreated to Caer Arianrhod, the Castle of the ever-turning Silver Wheel - the Wheel of Stars. Caer Arianrhod, the Aurora Borealis, is the enchanted realm of the Godess Arianrhod, ruler of the astral skies where she rules as the goddess of reincarnation.
The Oak King, who is the light twin, rules from midwinter to midsummer. The Holly King, the dark twin, rules from midsummer to midwinter.
For centuries we have marveled at the existence of stone circles and henges scattered around the world. The one that immediately comes to mind is Stonehenge located in southern England. June 21st finds Stonehenge invaded by druids and tourists waiting to catch a glimpse of the rising sun aligned perfected among the Bluestones. I had the opportunity to visit Stonehenge when visitors were able to walk among the stones. Dispite the carnival tourist atmosphere it is spectacular. But it is not the Summer Solstice nor Stonehenge but rather the Winter Solstice, the light twin, that my thoughts turn to in the far reaches off the coast of Scotland.
Maeshowe is a neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave located on the mainland of Orkney. Believed to have been constructed over 5,000 years ago it is also the largest of the many tombs located in Orkney. A grass mound hides the complex chambers and passages constructed of flagstones, some of which weigh upwards of 30 tons. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the Vikings looted Maeshowe, probably taking with them many artifacts but left behind a series of runic inscriptions - basically graffiti - on the stone walls. As our guide pointed out, while Vikings from the north invaded Scotland, not all Norsemen were Vikings.
Viking runes aside, the amazing part of Maeshowe occurs on the shortest day of the year. On December 21st, the setting sun aligns directly over a neighboring stone, called the Barnhouse Stone. The passageway into Maeshowe is aligned so that for a few minutes the setting sun illuminates the passageway and the rear wall of the central chamber.
It is a feat that I cannot begin to fathom has having been constructed 5,000 years ago, before the construction of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, to celebrate the return of the light.
While I may be sitting in my family room in north central Wisconsin my thoughts are thousands of miles away. Thanks to technology I watch the web cam from Maeshowe. At 14:28 GMT the fading light has begun to illuminate the passageway and central chamber. I celebrate by placing a piece of oak on my yule fire.
Blessings of light and life.