Today is the winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the axis of the North Pole is farthest away from the sun.
In Northumberland and the Borders – and across the Northern Hemisphere – it is the shortest day, the beginning of winter, and the longest night.
In Northumberland there is evidence of a fascinating cultural history of solstice and winter celebrations. Archaeology and the available writings on history and pagan mythology, as well as Roman texts, illustrate just how important the solstice was to the people who lived here thousands of years ago. These ceremonies – along with the Roman Saturnalia – give form the origins of the Christmas season and Christmas Day.
In particular the county is rich with ancient carvings called rock art, the meaning of which is open to interpretation. One writer, Richard Bradley, speculates that the carvings point to the sky and mark the alignment of the planets and position of the sun through time.
The best known celebration connected to the winter solstice is in Allendale Town, Northumberland. Here, the annual Tar Baa’ festival takes place every Dec. 31. This event has mysterious Pagan origins and involves a procession of local men, called Guisers, in costume. They parade through the town carrying burning tar barrels above their heads.
When they reach Allendale’s market place the Guisers throw the contents of the barrels onto a huge bonfire. They then dance around this massive bonfire – probably in a way people did centuries ago when marking an ancient ritual. The origins of the Tar Baal festival are not known, but it most likely developed from an ancient pagan celebration of the winter solstice.
The Celts had many celebrations like this. They wanted to brighten dark days and also make a request to the gods that the sun return and warm the earth again.
The most mysterious and amazing solstice site in Northumberland is a 5,000-year-old solar viewing platform at The Beacon, Simonside Hills. It was discovered by David Thompson, a computer scientist from Newcastle, a number of years ago. According to his friend Crispian Oates, David was caught out on the hills in the rain one day and took cover.
Crouching next to an enormous bolder about 1.5 meters square, he noticed that the giant rock had a hole running right through it. The hole is about five centimetres wide and 1.79 metres long.
David pulled out his compass bearing and discovered that the alignment of the hole corresponded to correspond with the solstice setting and rising positions of the sun. The following June David returned to test his theory and sure enough as the sun set on solstice night over Yarnspeth Law in the Cheviot Hills, roughly 22km away, its rays travelled through hole to the other side of the rock.
On the the winter solstice in December the sun’s light reaches four-fifths along the hole in the rock. Crispian says that slight movement and settlement of the rocks during thousands of years may have caused a tilt and prevented the rays from travelling the full lenght of the hole.
In ancient times, midwinter was a particularly dangerous time, both practically due to the cold and the possible lack of food, and also ceremonially, as the gods had to be placated to ensure that the sun did indeed come back from the dead.
Crispian believes the observatory site backs the claims by some archaeologists that Simonside was a sacred place. He bases his views on the distinctive shape on the horizon, which can be seen over a very wide area, and the number of burial cairns and prehistoric objects found on the hills. The also site overlooks the Iron Age hillfort of Lordenshaws, and surrounding examples of earlier cup and ring rock art.
“The hole is slap bang in the middle of the rock, and when the sun shines through on the summer solstice, the effect is of a big silhouettewith a dazzling bright light in the middle, and it gives a very dramatic impression,” said Crispian. “You are seeing something which was witnessed by people thousands of years ago, and you can only wonder what they were thinking. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to see what they did, if there was any ritual involved, and if everyone, or only certain people, could look.”
Northumberland geologist Brian Young believes the creation of the hole is deliberate and man-made. “I can’t imagine how a hole this long would develop naturally,” he said. “The sandstone which makes up the Simonside Hills is a rather tough sandstone and it is not naturally full of holes. If it was natural you would see a lot more holes, and you don’t. I would have to conclude somebody has made it, and it would have taken a lot of muscle power, persistence and determination.”
Adds Crispian: “They would have been marking the turning points of the year and the seasons, and there could have been religious overtones,” said Crispian. “Perhaps the heavens and the sun’s annual journey had great significance for them and Simonside has been thought to have had a very special place in their culture. The finds at The Beacon add to our understanding of their intellectual and technical abilities, leaving us with great admiration and wonder at what they achieved.”
But why was the winter solstice so significant?
In his book From Stonehenge to Santa Clause: The Evolution of Christmas, Northumberland archaeologist Paul Frodsham explains: “Today, most of us live in towns and cities and pay increasingly little attention to the movement of the sun, moon, planets and stars in the sky. In our artificially lit world and heated buildings we can exist almost without reference to the changing seasons, but to ancient people the observation of the heavens was critical. This was for practical reasons so they would know, for example, when to plant and harvest crops.
“This slow but irreversible cycle was easily monitored by placing a post in the ground and measuring the maximum length of the shadow cast by it each day; there would be a small but noticeable change from day to day, except at midsummer and midwinter, at each of which the movements of the sun appeared identical for about six days.The sun thus appeared to stand still, hence the term solstice literally from the Latin sol stetit, meaning to stand still.
“In ancient times, midwinter was a particularly dangerous time, both practically due to the cold and the possible lack of food, and also ceremonially, as the gods had to be placated to ensure that the sun did indeed come back from the dead. This is why midwinter became of such ritual importance to all communities, and ceremonies associated with it became bound up with cycles of death and rebirth.”