Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Day the Day Stood Still

Today is a day that I admit I never once paid the least bit attention to when I lived in Georgia, but has taken on a certain significance for me since I moved to Finland. It's päivänseisaus, which in the literal English translation would be "the stopping of day", or as I like to think of it, "the day that day stood still".  (To be exact, this is talvipäivänseisaus, or “the winter stopping of day”.  I know, but it makes a big difference.)

Sunrise at Stonehenge.  Photo: Mark Grant.
What this day is actually called in English is, of course, "winter solstice". It's the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year, and –  most importantly for us up here in the near Arctic trying to cope with winter darkness – it is the precise moment when days start, very gradually at first, to get longer. The worm has turned.  Earth will now somehow not keep growing darker and darker until there is no hope of a return to a world of sunlight.  There is an end to nights that get ever longer and deeper.  We’re over the hump and can now really believe in the coming of summer.   

I’m happy to see the solstice and encouraged that this is now as dark as it gets, and can understand why (without all the New Age nonsense) this day was important enough for prehistoric people to go to elaborate means to observe its occurrence.  Stonehenge very possibly was built with this in mind, as it is aligned to the direction the sun sets at the winter solstice.  In Ireland, I have visited a similar site even older than Stonehenge.  Newgrange is a circular earthen mound with a narrow tunnel that allows sunlight to fill a tiny room deep in its interior, but only once a year – at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Without all the artificial light that we now take for granted, the end of longer nights must surely have been a cause for celebration for the ancients.  And so it was.  Different cultures all over the world have long marked the solstice in various ways.  It’s why we celebrate Christmas at this time of year, instead of whenever Jesus may have actually been born.  

Newgrange, a neolithic mound in Ireland.  Photo: Shira.
The pagan Finnish celebration of kekri, an autumn harvest festival that may not be  directly related to the solstice, was likewise incorporated into Christmas, though it lived on as the main wintertime feast (not Christmas) in rural farming communities well into the 1800s, with elements of it still existing today. 

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the true meaning of Christmas is that the darkest days of winter are behind us, knowing this is so does give me a lot of cheer.  


  1. I did a fair amount of reading on the pagan religions in and around Finland before Christianity reared its ugly, jealous head. I was really horrified at how violently the old religions were put down.

    The winter solstice was a great reason to celebrate. You knew that from this point on things were just going to get a little bit better every day, resulting ultimately in a growing season and harvests and warmer weather. That is indeed a great excuse to haul out some of the hoarded food and drink and have a good party.

    The Winter Solstice (päivänseisaus): The REAL reason for the season.

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