A Celtic Christmas Reflection
During the past couple of years, I’ve written posts about the Celtic roots of Christmas, the ancient Celtic symbolism of and folklore about Christmas perennials, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, and discussed some of the similarities between the spiritual themes of winter solstice and Christmas. This week, I want simply to share a few reflections inspired by Christmas traditions from the modern Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Christmas Comes Every Year. Unless It’s Banned. Christianity became the dominant religion in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales between the fifth and eighth centuries AD. While the Celts held onto many of their pre-Christian observances, such as lighting bonfires on the four major holy days—Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasa—they also embraced the Christian feasts of Christmas and Easter.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell led a civil war in England. He and his Puritan forces defeated the Stuart king, Charles I, and set himself up as the Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. His government banned the celebration of Christmas. The Protectorate ended in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy and Christmas again could be celebrated again. Except in Scotland. Because of the powerful influence of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, the holiday was not celebrated openly until the mid-twentieth century. December 25th was considered a regular workday. In 1958, Christmas finally officially became a public holiday in Scotland. This history reminds me not to take anything for granted.
Cherish the Love. Mistletoe is hung at Christmas in Irish homes as a symbol of love and peace. The ancient Celts believed the plant was a gift from the thunder god who, they believed, placed mistletoe in oak trees. The plant was used to cure a variety of ailments and valued so highly, it could only be harvested once a year and then only by a sacred ritual overseen by a druid. The semi-parasitic plant had to be detached meticulously from its host tree, and extreme care was taken to ensure it did not touch the ground. Peace and love are gifts but work is required to harvest and keep them.
You’re Very Welcome. Another Irish Christmas tradition is to put a candle in the window. The light has a dual meaning. It is said to guide Joseph and Mary, who "find no room at the inn" to a place of rest. The candle indicates they are welcome in this home. This expands to the second meaning of the candle in the window. In the great tradition of Irish hospitality, it is a sign that all are welcome here. While welcoming strangers into your home has its dangers, this Christmas is a good time to reflect on just how welcoming your heart is, especially to those who seem different.
Forgiven and Forgotten: A Scottish Christmas tradition is to burn twigs from a rowan tree. This is done as a symbolic way to disintegrate feelings of envy or mistrust between family and friends. So, this year, let those negative feelings turn to dust, enjoy the holiday with a light heart, and start fresh in the new year.
Wipe the Slate Clean. A Welsh Christmas tradition also addresses starting fresh. It says that all debts should be paid before New Year's Day. This seems like a good idea, another fresh start. But it might be financially challenging or even impossible for some people to accomplish. Of course, not all debts can be paid back with money. Christmas is a good time to think about those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Also, consider turning this idea of paying all debts inside out. Christmas is a good time to forgive all debts. Do you feel someone has hurt you or owes you in some way? Maybe now’s the time to let it go.
Life is Evergreen. The Welsh decorate their homes with mistletoe and holly (as do the Irish and Scots) as a symbol of eternal life. The ancient Celts believed in the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Christians believe in the Paschal Mystery of life, death, and resurrection. Last Tuesday was winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. This Saturday is Christmas, the annual celebration of the Light coming into the world, shattering darkness and death. Rejoice! Let the light of hope dispel any darkness you're experiencing.
I am taking this week off to enjoy the holidays so there will be no post next week. I wish you blessings of joy, health, peace, and love in the new year.
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Nollaig Shona Duit!