|Winter Solstice Sunrise, Ireland, Sandymount Strand, 2008|
While it is uncertain whether or not the ancient Gaels celebrated the darkest night of the year (Grianstad an Gheimhridh or Meán Geimhridh as it's known in Gaeilge [Irish] today), a number of modern Gaelic Polytheists, including myself, do indeed mark this solar event. As the winter was an extremely hard time for the ancient Gaels and travel would have been short (if any took place at all), the likelihood of a grand celebration on the scale seen at Samhain looks very slim. However, some of us believe that if the Midwinter was indeed observed it would have taken the form of small, intimate, familial celebrations. This sets the stage for how most observe the day.
Family/community is the foundation of Gaelic Polytheism and so gathering together with loved ones (of choice or relation) during the dark, cold months of the year is truly something special that some feel should be commemorated. Many Gaelic Polytheists celebrate by welcoming the sunrise whilst repeating prayers from Carmina Gadelica (#316, "Hail to thee, thou sun of the seasons" being a favorite of most) and turning their thoughts to Brú na Bóinne, or Newgrange, since the tomb is illuminated by the solstice sunrise through the roof box. Others might even have all-night vigils, using the long darkness of the night for meditation, contemplation, and devotion — huddling together with family and friends to celebrate the sun when it rises.
While Brú na Bóinne is definitely a pre-Celtic passage tomb, the fact that it has myths attributed to it shows that the Gaels respected it and even possibly had rites honouring it. While we will probably never know this for certain, Midwinter is indeed an astronomical event marked by many Gaelic Polytheists today.
More Supporting Cultural Information
Alongside Brú na Bóinne, there are quite a few tombs and megaliths which align to the solstice sun at various times of the day. While the single, southeast facing passage of Brú na Bóinne harbours the dawn sunrise, other nearby cairns in the complex give shelter to the sun's rays throughout course of the day. Cairn K gives refuge to the midday sun, while Dowth (Dubhadh, "darkening" or "blackening") lying to the east-northeast takes in the sunset. The light of the setting sun moves along the left side of the passage in Dowth, then into the circular chamber where three stones are lit up. Ulster mythology points to Dowth as the residence of Bresal Bófháith — named in the Dindshenchas as Bresal Bódíbad — thus giving the cairn the alternate epithet Síd mBresail.
At Midwinter, the sun is referred to as Griannan or An Grían Béag (Gaeilge, "The Little Sun"), denoting its weaker light, as opposed to An Grían Mhór (Gaeilge, "The Big Sun") at Midsummer. Because of this, some believe Grian (literally, "sun") — the goddess who dwells at Cnoc Gréine in Munster — to have connections to Midwinter as the pale, winter sun since her sister, Áine, rules Midsummer as the bright, summer sun and thus offerings can certainly be given to Grian at Midwinter by Gaelic Polytheists. Offerings could also be given to Óengus, Boann, Nechtan, and/or Dagda since all have associations with Brú na Bóinne. One could even use this as a time to read aloud Newgrange's various mythos. (Along with having connections to Óengus, Boann, Nechtan, and Dagda, Newgrange is also the place where Cú Chulainn was conceived and where Diarmaid and Lugh are said to be laid to rest.)
Another goddess with ties to wintertime is the Cailleach who is known in Scotland as Cailleach Bheur ("the genteel old lady") and Cailleach Uragaig ("the old woman of Uragaig"); in Ireland as An Cailleach ("the old woman") or Cailleach Bhearra ("old woman of Beara"); and on the Isle of Man as Caillagh ny Gueshag ("old woman of gloom" or "the old woman of the spells") or Caillagh ny Groamagh ("the sullen witch"). The blue-faced Cailleach is the personification of winter, ruling from November 1st to May 1st and, according to MacKillop (The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 1998, p70), is the daughter of the pale, winter sun. In the Gulf of Corryvreckan (Coire Bhreacain, Gàidhlig, "cauldron of the plaid" or "cauldron of the speckled seas") off the west coast of Scotland, the Cailleach is said to usher in winter by washing her great plaid in the waters. This in turn causes a tempest which lasts three days and can be heard from as far as twenty miles. Afterward, the plaid is white and becomes the first snowfall to cover the land.
Slieve Gullion (Sliabh gCuillinn, "mountain of the hillslopes") — located to the southwest of Newry in Ireland — has a southwest facing cairn which is penetrated by the setting solstice sun on Midwinter much in the same way Newgrange is at dawn. Carlingford Lough (by which Newry sits) is named after the hag Cairlinn, a Norse word some scholars believe is the Viking equivalent to the Gàidhlig word for cailleach, carleen.
Off the northern coast of Scotland lies Arcaibh (Orkney), a group of islands where the mainland houses the large Neolithic passage grave known as Maeshowe (which dates to around 2800 BCE and is referred to as Orkahaugr in the Orkneyinga Saga). Just before the last rays of the solstice sun slip under the horizon, they shine brightly and fiercely into the entrance of this passage grave. Lloyd Laing suggests that this proves links between the Gaels and the Norse since Maeshowe is very similar to Newgrange (Orkney and Shetland: An Archaeological Guide, 1974, p42).