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Take on Nature: Nature gives way to the new around the winter solstice

Daffodils in December, a meeting of old and new as we pass the winter solstice
Stephen Colton

THIS weekend as we greet the turning of the year, leave an old friend or foe behind and embrace a new one, I reflect on the recent meeting of old and new in my garden, a coming together of sorts which captured the subtle change of mood in the natural world right now.

There in the soil of a bare flower bed, the sharp edge of an emerging new daffodil stem had, like a dagger, pierced through a rusty old beech leaf cast off by autumn winds. Perhaps a defiant act of revenge by the protruding plant against the darkness of mid-winter or maybe a giving way by the leaf to the lengthening days. Either way, it was a meeting of old and new as we passed the winter solstice, December 21.

This hibernal solstice has been a spiritually and scientifically important day since ancient times, especially at historic sites like the Neolithic monument of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley and Stonehenge in England.

The word solstice originates from the Latin word solstitium a combination of sol, ‘sun' and sistere, meaning ‘standing still', giving us ‘standing Sun' a reference to how the apparent seasonal movement of the Sun's daily path (as seen from Earth) stops before reversing direction.

The winter solstice in our northern hemisphere marks the point at which the Earth's tilt is at its most extreme angle away from the sun and just before it begins to lean towards the sun and continue its orbit, bringing longer daylight hours and movement towards spring.

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic peoples of northern Europe celebrated a 12-day midwinter ‘solstice holiday' at this time called Yule, from which come many of the modern Christmas customs. The traditional yule log was burnt as an offering to the solstice and the ceremony was followed by drinking, singing and dancing, all of which marked the reawakening of nature.

Curiously, however, many including myself look for such changes in daylight from earlier in December, around the 12th, to be precise, as this is when, according to distinguished nature author Richard Mabey, the evenings really begin to brighten and lengthen.

In his book Nature Cure (2005), Mabey writes: "Because the Earth's orbit round the Sun isn't symmetrical, the relentless pincer movement of darkening mornings and afternoons doesn't conclude with a neat snap on Solstice Day.''

He goes on to state that mornings don't begin to brighten until New Year's Day, but that, "the evenings draw out from the 12th".

Ever since reading this I watch closely for those ever-so-slightly brighter evenings after December 12. The changes are noticeable if you look carefully and so too are the many other sights and sounds of giving way to the brighter days. I've heard in recent days those distinctive lilting phrases of the Mistle Thrush, a bird well known for its defiant singing during poor weather, a trait which gave it its old name Storm cock.

The fluty warbled notes of the robin are more frequent of late and just last week a blue tit in readiness gave a blast of its high-pitched song. The cooing collared doves also sound emboldened by the passing of the solstice and the daffodil stems bursting forth herald that change is on its way.

As the year ends I take comfort from knowing that the natural world is reawakening and despite efforts by winter to maintain its grip, it will eventually give way to the new in the weeks ahead.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh. Happy New Year to you.

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