21 December: The Winter Solstice

Winter solitude--
in a world of one colour
the sound of wind.

'Winter Solitude' by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

It’s the winter solstice. We are on the upward curve again and the light strengthens. What a relief that must have been to our ancestors. It’s hard to imagine now a world where the only artificial light was a tiny floating wick in a little dish of oil.  All activity would have to be crammed into the few short hours of daylight and the nights would be very, very long. Time to tell stories, play games, sleep and make love.  Maybe too, time to come together to feast and celebrate.

The winter solstice means 'Montol' in Penzance, so I'll be masked up and following the river of fire up to the iron age fort on the edge of town. On top there will be a huge lit brazier and we'll all watch as the guizers dance and the sparks light up the night sky. Here's the earlier post about it.


Years ago I went to New Grange in Ireland – properly called Brú na Bóinne.  It’s an amazing construction, a low, stone mound, full of ancient passages and chambers, older than Stonehenge, older even than the pyramids. The main entrance faces the midwinter solstice. For a few days around the solstice, the rising sun shines through an open box above the door and a ray of sunlight penetrates deep into the mound. It’s hard to escape the symbolism of light into dark, sky into earth and day into night. It’s about rebirth, renewal and the sun keeping its promise that summer will come again.

Solstice means ‘sun standing still’ and in fact without modern calculators it is impossible to know the exact moment the sun hits its low point. The builders of Brú na Bóinne angled their entrance so that the sun hit the light box for several days either side of the solstice. Just as an aside, it's only by the 25th December that you can tell the sun is rising again. Uncanny that.

We know that the building was used for burials and the internment of previously cremated remains, but what happened there at midwinter we don’t know and it’s tempting to see it with modern eyes. You can imagine the scene – an ancient druid prepares to sacrifice some poor maiden on the altar, a dashing hero comes along and rescues her, consternation amongst the people watching, thunderclaps and a miraculous escape. All very ‘B movie’.

But people must have gathered there to see the miracle of the penetrating sun, otherwise why design the mound so? We know that bodies or bones were interred inside, so surely there must have been a ceremonial element. And when people come together at a time of year when there isn’t much work to be done – what do they do? They feast. It’s important to remember too, that these were people like us, indeed they were us, not some other species and certainly not primitive. They were as intelligent as we are, although they knew and believed different things.

This is Cornelius Krieghoff's nineteenth century painting of an Indian woman. I think it's lovely and it gives us some idea of what it must be like to live in the winter landscape as opposed to just looking at it.

We couldn’t survive if a time machine catapulted us back to 3000BC. The people of Brú na Bóinne and Stonehenge and Maeshowe could and did survive, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Somehow I always feel their presence over my shoulder at the solstice.

A Venison and Chestnut Casserole

I can't often get venison, so it makes sense to stretch it as far as possible when I can. You can add a chunked and roasted aubergine to this (I did) if you want it to go even further. Best make this on the day before you want to eat it.

500g shoulder of venison
1 largish onion
oil or dripping
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 strip orange peel
About 600ml of liquid, I used a mixture of beer and beef consommé. You might need a bit more.
200g vacuum packed cooked chestnuts.
S and P

Finely slice the onion and cook it on a low heat until it is really soft and golden. Add the crushed garlic after about 10 minutes.

Remove the onion from the pan and set aside. Dredge the venison in flour and fry in batches on a high heat until golden brown on the outside. You'll need more oil, but don't worry for your arteries, the venison is very lean.

Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with the beer, or wine or just the stock. Return the meat and onions to the pan, add the flavouring ingredients and enough liquid to cover. Cook for 2 hours at 140c. Taste and check the seasoning. The next day heat the casserole to a steady simmer and give it another hour at the same temp.

I made little chiffonade of baby chard leaves. They added a bright acidic note.

We had this with tatties and neeps. (My autospeller rendered that as tattoos and jeeps!)

Very sustaining.

Wind high and cold, the sun low, short in its course, the sea running high.
Deep red the bracken, its shape is lost; the wild goose has raised its accustomed cry.
Cold has seized the wings of the birds, season of ice. 
This is my news.

Anonymous. Irish. 9th Century.

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