There is a sign outside the Methodist Chapel in Sidmouth at the moment that reads “Jesus is what Christmas is all about!” and the same maxim is big on the internet. The argument of this too true statement is as circular as a holly wreath and therefore signifies nothing. If you call Christmas, Christmas, then it clearly has everything to do with Jesus Christ but if you call the Winter Solstice, the Winter Solstice, then there have been many hundreds of gods claiming this space and competing with the Christians’ 'Nativity' and, I dare say, there are still a few competing gods about.
As every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows, the magic of the winter solstice is that the sun stops its apparent run along the horizon, bobs up and down in the same place for three days and then starts moving back the way it came. After this magic time when the sun ‘stands still’, the days, which were getting uncomfortably shorter, start once again to lengthen and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and congratulates the priests and wisemen who have predicted the happy outcome.
Few places allow a better view of the march of the sun than the East bank of the Exe Estuary. The Western hills provide a stage where this oldest of dramas is played out year after year. For thousands of pre Christian years the many different pagan races who lived on the high ground towards Woodbury would have kept a close eye on the setting sun as, day by day, he sank dramatically behind the Haldon Hills ever further to the South, across the wide Estuary. They would have followed his slow apparent journey from his midsummer position on the high moors behind the Turf Lock Hotel (which pub of course they all knew well!) to the seacoast at Dawlish, and they probably prayed to the gods of the age to encourage the sun to fight, fight against the dying of the light which, in the end he always did and, which,as yet, he has never failed to do.
And then, at last, ‘Phew,!’ just in time for Christmas, the sun stops slipping away into the ocean, and, ‘Wowee!, what an excuse for a party!