The year turns at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. If the day is clear, in Co Meath in Ireland, at sunrise tomorrow, the sun will shine down the passageway that leads to the inner chamber of the great passage tomb at Newgrange.
For 3,000 BC, it is an extraordinary piece of construction. There must have been many patient years devoted to building the passage and chamber with the precision required to ensure that it was only on the very shortest days of the year that the rays of sunlight penetrated into the dark heart of the tomb.
Little is known of the people who built the mound. They left few clues about themselves. Nineteenth Century Romantics, attributed the tomb to “druids.” The attribution owes more to aspirations to recapture an ancient, pre-industrial past than to any evidence from artefacts.
What is clear is that those who built the burial mound were people for whom the passing of the shortest day was a moment of such significance that only a structure the size of Newgrange was thought adequate to express their hopes. As the year died and rose again, perhaps the builders of the tomb believed that those interred would descend into darkness and rise again into light.
Five thousand years after it was built, pictures today from RTE television of the light shining down the passageway, seemed a moment of light relief. The news from the BBC seems uniformly bleak
First, Christmas was to be restricted to five days of very limited gatherings, then it was cut to one day, and for a quarter of the population of England, it has been cancelled altogether.
Maybe Christmas doesn’t matter that much. The cancellation of days of excessive eating and consumption of alcohol could be good for the health of many people. What does matter is the human need for companionship, the need for contact, the need for communication. Life without these is not the sort of life to which many people would aspire.
The cancellation of Christmas, not just the day, but the whole sequence of days, will bear down heavily upon many vulnerable or lonely people. In a year when people may have spent weeks or months in isolation, to be without companies on the darkest days is a depressing prospect.
The Newgrange builders would have celebrated tomorrow that the light was returning. Whatever the actions of humans, the sun was unaffected.
Such a disposition is needed now. A recovery of the confidence of those prehistoric peoples.