Joyce Fegan: How Celts’ winter solstice is relevant to modern Ireland

If you look around us, the trees are without their leaves, animals are hibernating, farm animals are kept indoors, flowers have gone to seed, and aside from us humans, everyone and everything else seems to have got the memo to slow down, writes Joyce Fegan.

Joyce Fegan: How Celts’ winter solstice is relevant to modern Ireland

Today is officially the shortest day of the year and at 4.19am tomorrow, we’ll have the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the Earth’s North Pole is at its maximum tilt away from the sun.

This tilt gives us the longest hours of darkness throughout the whole year, and still, after all these years, in Ireland, the solstice sun will light up the 5,200-year-old passage tomb in Newgrange, Co Meath.

In Celtic wisdom, the winter solstice, or the “dark night of the soul”, was one of eight festivals in their calendar. Unlike us, our Celtic ancestors lived with the rhythms of nature, and this was a time of year of going inwards and reflecting.

Not so in our busy, busy times.

If 2019 has given us anything, it has given us overwhelm and uncertainty.

At a national level, there is the rising numbers living in homelessness, 10,514 people and counting, 3,826 of whom are children. We have the ongoing and unresolved saga with the FAI. There are the creche fees and the insurance premiums to go along with them. We’ve had European, local and by-elections.

We have the crippling traffic jams, that aren’t sporadic in nature, but chronic and daily, and not just in Dublin and Cork, but reaching into all of our commuter belts.

Next door, we’ve had to wait with baited breath to see would Brexit unfold or not. How would our businesses cope? How would trading and jobs, livelihoods, be impacted? What would happen at the border?

All this in a year when a young innocent woman, and wonderful journalist, Lyra McKee was shot dead in Derry.

Internationally, we have US president Trump fighting with teenagers on Twitter while facing impeachment in the New Year, with his pal, president of Russia Vladimir Putin rowing in to defend him.

And as an early Christmas present we have Conservative leader Boris Johnson firmly instated in 10 Downing Street as his party had a resounding victory in last week’s British general election, under their ‘get Brexit done’ manifesto. People were so beleaguered after three years of Brexit ‘what ifs’, and frustration reigned supreme.

Existentially, we are inundated with reports about the precarious future of the planet, not to mention relentless fires in the Amazon and Australia.

When it comes to action, the scientists, in their thousands, can agree, but the policymakers, our world leaders can’t seem to.

Instead, grown men, like Trump and broadcasters Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson, take aim at a 16-year-old girl.

So if you’re gliding into 2020, in a state of overwhelm, no one would blame you.

What did our Celtic ancestors do? They saw the winter solstice, and indeed this time of the year, as ‘deep winter’. They surrendered to the darkness, slowed down and listened.

Joyce Fegan: How Celts’ winter solstice is relevant to modern Ireland

If you look around us, the trees are without their leaves, animals are hibernating, farm animals are kept indoors, flowers have gone to seed and aside from us humans, everyone and everything else seems to have got the memo to slow down.

How are you going to spend Christmas or, indeed, the next few days before December 25?

Will you race frantically from shop to shop picking up token gifts that will be left discarded in a corner of someone’s house come St Stephen’s Day?

Or will you spend some time with a friend or family member, talking, kettle on, prepping food and just kicking back?

Digital marketeers have predicted that 2020 will be the year of the digital detox. Our social media feeds will see out-of-office signs of their own and our emails won’t be answered as quickly come 8pm or Friday night.

Just this week, newly published research, from LifeSearch showed that real-life conversations have decreased by 15% over the past five years.

What’s more, the number of digital conversations being had in the UK every day has overtaken face-to-face interactions.

The research found that family dinners were no longer a guaranteed time of ‘catching up’, with one in seven (14%) respondents saying they felt more comfortable talking with family by phone, messaging apps, and social media.

And in a world of unrelenting forest fires, seeming powerlessness over climate action and increasingly polarised politics — deep and meaningful face-to-face conversations would really help us all cope that bit better.

And what better time to start that digital detox and have those face-to-face conversations than at Christmas time? After all, our Celtic ancestors used this time to slow right down and stay indoors.

According to Mari Kennedy, who worked as former president Mary McAleese’s project co-ordinator, the darkness that the winter solstice brings isn’t actually a bad thing.

Joyce Fegan: How Celts’ winter solstice is relevant to modern Ireland

Now working as an organisational consultant, as well as a yoga instructor, Mari also teaches people about that old calendar, the Celtic Wheel.

This might be the darkest and longest day of the year, but it also marks the return of the light.

While 2019 might have been overwhelming, you’ll be far better able to take on 2020 if you avail of the rest that Christmas holidays, if you have them, can give — be that switching off the email, putting down the phone, or spending time with friends and family, who you only manage to chat to over WhatsApp all year.

The last 12 months might have been overwhelming, internationally and domestically, leaving people feeling powerless and in a state of despair, but the next 12 will not be assisted by our continued exhaustion.

This winter solstice and Christmas, slow down if you can, switch off if your job allows it and try spend some time with good friends or family, if you have one.

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