Celtic Christmas

Yule or Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

   "Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still. The lowest elevation occurs on or about December 21st and is the winter solstice -- the first day of winter, when the night time hours are maximum. The winter solstice is often called Yule. It is a time for introspection, and planning for the future. Yule may mean 'Yoke of the Year', derived from the Anglo-Saxon Geola, though some suggest a derivation from the Norse Jul, meaning 'wheel'. Mid December was also Dies Juvenalis, Coming of Age for Young Men.
   The winter solstice has long been celebrated as the birth of the sun, of light, of life itself. In Maeshowe, (Orkneys, Scotland) there is a chambered cairn built on a leveled area with a surrounding bank and ditch. It has been carbon dated at 2750BC. Inside the cairn is a stone structure with a long entry tunnel. The structure is aligned so that sunlight can shine along the entry passage into the interior of the megalith, and illuminate the back of the structure. This happens at sunrise at the winter solstice. One of the most impressive prehistoric monuments in Europe is at Newgrange, in Brugh-na-Boyne, County Meath, in eastern Ireland. It covers an area of one acre, and has an entrance passage that is almost 60 feet (18 m) long. Above the entrance way is a stone box that allows the light from the sun to penetrate to the back of the cairn at sunrise on the winter solstice. It has been dated at about 3,300 BCE and is one of the oldest structures in the world.
   Ultimately, of course, the holiday is rooted deeply in the cycle of the year. It is the Winter Solstice that is being celebrated, seed-time of the year, the longest night and shortest day. It is the birth time of the new Sun King, the Son of God -- by whatever name you choose to call him. On this darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of the winter, 'the dark night of our souls', there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth.
   Druids formed the professional class in ancient Celtic society. They performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, poets and judges. Druids led all public rituals, which were normally held within fenced groves of sacred trees. The winter solstice was the time of the death of the old sun and the birth of the dark-half of the year. It was called "Alban Arthuan".


   Emperor Aurelian (270-275CE) blended a number of Pagan solstice celebrations of the nativity of such gods as Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called Sol Invictus, the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" on December 25th. At the time, Mithraism and Christianity were fierce competitors. Aurelian even declared Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274 CE. Christianity won out by becoming the new official religion in the 4th century CE.
   The metaphor of the birth of the sun worked well for Christians celebrating the birth of the Son of God, who brings light to the world.  Christ's birth was first celebrated on January 6th, then moved in 336CE to December 25th. This change was not popular with everyone. The Christians of Edessa accused the church in Rome of idolatry and "sun worship." Some Biblical scholars believe that Christ was actually born in the fall after the harvest or in spring after the birth of the new animals, both the most likely times for taxation. Shepherds don't 'tend their flocks by night' in the high pastures in the dead of winter. If one wishes to use the New Testament as historical evidence, this reference may point to sometime in the spring as the time of Jesus' birth. This is because the lambing season occurs in the spring and that is the most likely time when shepherds 'watched their flocks by night' -- to make sure the lambing went well. Knowing this, the Eastern half of the Church continued to reject December 25, preferring a 'movable date' fixed by their astrologers according to the moon.
   In 563CE, the Council of Braga forbade fasting on Christmas Day, and four years later the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from December 25 to Epiphany as a sacred, festive season. This last point is perhaps the hardest to impress upon the modern reader, who is lucky to get a single day off work. Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a single day, but rather a period of twelve days, from December 25 to January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in fact.
   Polydor Virgil, an early British Christian, said "Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them." In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its heathenism. The English Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647 for a time. Some contemporary Christian faith groups still do not celebrate Christmas.
   Although Christmas Dec 25th is a major holiday in Ireland, it is not widely celebrated in Scotland. Some historians have suggested that the reason Christmas is downplayed in Scotland is because of the influence of the Presbyterian Church or Kirk, which viewed Christmas as a "Papist", or Catholic event. As a result, Christmas in Scotland tends to be a somber event, in direct contrast to the next Celtic festival, Hogmany, held on January 1. January 6 is the day of the feast of the Epiphany. It is called "Little Christmas" in Ireland, Nollaig Bheag in Gaelic. Little Christmas, the Day of the Epiphany, is sacred as a celebration of God's manifestation to us in human form. 


   Many symbols and practices associated with Christmas are of Pagan origin: holly, ivy, mistletoe, yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, magical reindeer, and others.
   In the Celtic language, Mistletoe means "All Heal". The ancient Celts believed Mistletoe possessed miraculous healing powers and held the soul of the host tree during the winter months. It was believed to have miraculous power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility to humans and animals, and as protection against evil spirits. Mistletoe was collected by the Druid in a very special ceremony held five days after the New Moon following winter solstice. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. The priest then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace. Mistletoe was one of the casualties of early Christian celebrations, and for centuries it was forbidden to display the plant on Christian altars. Mistletoe found its way back into acceptance as the Victorians revived the ancient ritual of kissing under the Mistletoe as a sign of love, romance and good luck.

"Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids."
   So Washington Irving, in "Christmas Eve," relates the typical festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing under the mistletoe. To understand the full practice of kissing under the mistletoe, he adds a note.
"The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."
   The folklore, and the magical powers of this plant, has blossomed over the centuries. A sprig placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from faeries, as an example.
   Today, Holly conjures up images of Christmas wreaths, but actually had religious significance long before it's adoption by Christianity. There are around 400 natural types of holly in the world, but the one people are most familiar with is Ilex aquifolium, or "English/Christmas Holly". It is a coniferous evergreen plant that can be found in many parts of the world. English holly grows best in moist soil in direct sunlight, but it can tolerate partial shade as well. Holly was important in Pagan/Druidic religion and customs. It was placed around dwellings during winter, intended as a kindly and hospitable gesture so that the fairies could come into their homes and use the holly as shelter against the cold. This may actually have had some basis in fact, as holly growing in the wild is often used as shelter by small animals, primarily insects. It was holly's evergreen nature that made it special. The Druids believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the deciduous trees such as the sacred oak shed their leaves. The holly berries were thought to represent the sacred menstrual blood of their Goddess. In some rights, holly was used for protection, decorating doors and windows to ward off evil spirits before they could enter the house. As the British Isles began to convert to Christianity, the early Christians continued the tradition of decorating their home with holly. The significance of the berries changed so that they now symbolized the blood of Christ and holly gradually solidified its position as a Christmas tradition.
   The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the early winter festival. In accordance to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land, or given as a gift. It must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace, it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour, perhaps even with a small outlined human figure before set ablaze by a piece of last year's log. The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for 12 days before being ceremonially put out. Ash is the traditional wood of the Yule log. It is the sacred world tree of the Teutons, known as Yggdrasil. An herb of the Sun, Ash brings light into the hearth at the Solstice.

   For most of the modern Christian world, the Christmas season is a time of joy, of family, of giving, of love, of peace. A time to celebrate the birth of love and forgiveness. A time to celebrate the birth of their Lord.
   Whether you are Christian, wiccan or pagan, look to the Yule as a period of enlightenment and renewal of spirit.

A little Celtic Christmas Trivia Quiz

Celtic Christmas


Chieftain's Silent Night: A Christmas in Rome

Celtic Xmas: Gold Collection St. Clair Records

Celtic Xmas, Various Artists, Avalon (Rock Bottom) Records

Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter, J. Philip Newell

Celtic Holiday Various Artists

Anonymous Four --  "WOLCUM YULE" and "ON YOOLIS NIGHT" cds www.anonymous4.com Heavenly early-medieval-to-modern female-ensemble singing.

The Barra MacNeils -- "CAPE BRETON CHRISTMAS" dvd -- live Christmas concert, plus interviews etc.  Also "THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM" cd (which features a Galician carol). www.barramacneils.com

Broceliande (Celtic/Renaissance band) -- 'SIR CHRISTEMAS" cd -- olde English and European Yule music bridging Christian and pagan traditions. www.broceliande.org

Kim Robertson -- "CELTIC CHRISTMAS II" cd (harp and cello), and "CHRISTMAS LULLABY" cd (solo Celtic harp with Christmas music ranging from Irish/Scottish to Basque and Czech. www.kimrobertson.net

Heather Dale -- "THIS ENDRIS NIGHT" cd -- medieval and Renaissance Christmas music, with instruments like the hammered dulcimer, bowed psaltery, and middle-Eastern percussion. www.heatherdale.com

Also, the late Johnny Cunningham, did a lovely combined music-and-poetry album, "THE SOUL OF CHRISTMAS" A CELTIC MUSIC CELEBRATION," with Thomas Moore, and guest musicians like Kathy Mattea and Susan McKeown. www.johnnycunningham.com


Simply Delicious Irish Christmas

An Irish Country Christmas, Alice Taylor's Irish Christmas memoir

Irish Christmas Book, John Killen


IrishClans.com: "Christmas in Ireland: Irish Christmas Traditions"

Tartans.com: "The Celtic Origins of Christmas: Alban Arthuan"




Celtic Christmas Playlists




http://www.pittsburghirish.org/echoesoferin/Playlist/index.htm (look at the Dec. 11th, Dec. 4th and Nov. 27th playlists, etc.)