A Neolithic Christmas
It is just before the full moon sets on the winter solstice – the December day which is the shortest of the year – some 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Neolithic people or maybe priests gather around the enclosed Cove at the centre of the stone circle we now know as Arbor Low, high on Middleton Common, south of Monyash.
What are they waiting for? The full moon hanging in the sky above the White Peak plateau slowly dips towards Black Edge, ten miles away on the horizon, as seen through the north-west entrance of the raised henge monument which surrounds and conceals the stone circle.
This is the magical moment when those unknown tribespeople knew that the year had finally turned. And turning around and looking over the limestone monoliths near the south-eastern entrance to the henge, the midwinter sun would soon be rising, bringing with it the promise of warmth and life still to come as the eternal passing of the seasons comes full circle.
Of course, this is a purely hypothetical scenario, but archaeologists are pretty sure that the geometry and entrances of Arbor Low – sometimes known as the Stonehenge of the North – were aligned with the sun and moon at the midwinter and midsummer solstices.
Put simply, the winter solstice is calculated as the moment when the tilt of the earth’s axis takes it the furthest from the sun, and it occurs in most years on or around 21st December.
By a happy coincidence, that ties in closely with the Christian celebration of the birth of
Christ and Christmas, with all its modern commercialisation. But if the calculations at Arbor Low and other stones circles are anything to go by, we’ve been celebrating the winter solstice for far longer than all that superficial tinsel and glitter which seem to form such an important part of the event today.
For example, the bringing in of the Yule Log, which traditionally celebrates the turning of the year, originated in pagan Scandinavia. And our modern custom of decorating the house with evergreens like holly, ivy and mistletoe and the Christmas tree, probably began life as a celebration of solstice evergreens, mysteriously remaining green in the depths of winter.
The ancient traditional carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, may derive from a pre-christian age when the Lord and Lady of the Greenwood were honoured by the hanging of evergreen garlands from the ridge poles of houses.
‘The geometry and entrances at Arbor Low were aligned with the sun and moon at the midwinter and midsummer solstices’
And even that personification of Christmas – Father Christmas, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas – may have had his origins in those shamans who were the first priests and magicians of the human race. It’s likely that they were the people who oversaw the building of those Neolithic stone circles and henges like Arbor Low, ensuring that they aligned with the astronomical movements of the heavenly bodies.
No one will ever know the truth behind these theories.
But I know when I step inside the stone circle of Arbor Low or any other of our prehistoric monuments, I feel the same sense of sanctity and reverence as I do when I step inside an ancient church or cathedral.
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