Winter is coming. Or perhaps it’s already here. I’m not talking about snow. I’m talking about dates. According to the Western calendar, the first day of winter 2023 will be next Thursday, December 21st. Thursday the 21st also happens to be the Winter Solstice (in the northern hemisphere). That’s not a coincidence. The Winter Solstice marks the first day of winter every year—if you go by the Western calendar. According to the Celtic calendar, winter started back on November 1st, on the Celtic fire festival of Samhain.
But let’s not quibble about dates. Winter Solstice was a highly significant time for the ancient Celts and some of the ways they celebrated the solstice—and the season of winter—are still a part of our modern winter traditions. You might be surprised to discover that some things we associate with Christmas actually have their roots in ancient Celtic folk practices. Just for fun, I’ve also included in today’s post two Celtic folklore stories that explain why and how winter changes into spring. So, sit back, sip some hot chocolate or mulled wine, and enjoy reading these winter tales.
Winter Solstice Celtic Style
Celebrating the solstices (winter and summer) is not unique to the Celts. Many cultures throughout the world have viewed the solstices as significant days for millennia, and both solstices are still celebrated today. But this post will look at what the Celts thought about the Winter Solstice and how they responded to it.
Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year. It has the fewest number of daylight hours of any day in the entire year. In other words, it’s the darkest day.
The ancient Celts believed that, during the winter, their sun god, Lugh, went south. Here I’ve got to pause to give a shout out to my friends down under who will be celebrating the Summer Solstice next Thursday. (Click here to read about it). But when I say “south,” I mean they believed he retreated to the Otherworld, which is not necessarily down, but anyway, you get the idea. Lugh left and took the sun and its warmth with him.
Now remember, for the Celts, winter started back in November. By the time Winter Solstice came around, it was mid-winter, really dark and bitterly cold. About this time each year, the ancient Celts got worried. What if Lugh didn’t come back? So, by the solstice, they thought it was time to take action and encourage the god to return.
To lure him back, they built bonfires. After all, what would attract a sun god? Light, warmth, fire seemed a good way to go. They also prayed, offered animal sacrifices, and had a big celebration. But the ancient Celts did one more thing to try to get Lugh’s attention, and this one thing might sound familiar to some readers. They placed candles and shiny, star-shaped objects in evergreen trees. Hmm…decorating evergreen trees with lights and shiny objects in late December. As I said, it might sound familiar.
This ritual was repeated each Winter Solstice because it seemed to work. From the Winter Solstice until the Summer Solstice, the days grew progressively longer and, with the increased amount of daylight, warmer. Of course, science now has taken the wonder out of this by explaining that it all has to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis towards the sun, but let’s stay focused on wonder and magic. Let’s talk about holly, ivy, and mistletoe.
Winter Plant Magic
Winter was, and actually still can be, a scary and dangerous time. We may not need to worry, as the ancient Celts did, about running out of food, but there are other potentially life-threatening possibilities during winter. One is being without electricity for days because of an ice storm or blizzard. Hopefully, you have a gas or wood-burning stove and fireplace so you won’t freeze to death, but there’s one other wintertime worry: bugs. No. Not insects. The respiratory viruses that run rampant in the winter. Modern medicine frees most of us from worrying about dying from colds and flus (and now Covid and RSV), but the stark truth is people still die each year during the winter because of respiratory illnesses and the bitterly cold weather.
Imagine, then, how the ancient Celts felt. So, they turned to magic. Being highly aware of nature, they noticed that a few plants stayed green and alive during the season when everything else in the world looked dead. These evergreens, they reasoned, must contain powerful magic that helped them survive the winter. Why not, they further reasoned, tap into that magic to keep ourselves, our families, and our animals alive too?
Going with that logic, the ancient Celts, each winter, brought evergreens into their homes in the hopes that the potent magic that helped the plants survive the winter would protect everyone in the household. The three chief plants that were brought in were holly, ivy, and mistletoe.
The Druids classified holly as a royal tree. It was agaibst the law to cut it down. But families could pick up some fallen boughs to bring into their houses. The Celts believed that holly provided protection from evil spirits and bad luck. Also, they felt the boughs of holly would provide a place for faeries to take refuge from the cold. The faeries in turn might thank the family by showering them with the blessings of health and good fortune. Bringing holly into the house in winter, then was a win-win idea.
Ivy did not enjoy the same positive reputation as holly. The Druids considered the plant sinister. But—and it’s an important but—they believed it contained particularly potent magic. Why? Ivy is really tough to kill. If you cut it away, it grows back. If you’re looking for a plant’s magic to rub off on you, what better plant to bring into the house than one that’s hard to kill? Maybe through osmosis you’ll be able to survive anything winter throws at you.
One of the plants most highly revered by the ancient Celts was mistletoe. Today, we tend to see it simply as a decoration that enables people to steal a kiss or two but, for the Celts, it was sacred, sacred, sacred. It could be harvested only once a year and then only during a ritual overseen by a druid priest. And, as the plant (which is semi-parasitic) was cut away from its host tree, assistants stood neatby holding a sheet to catch the plant. Mistletoe was not to touch the ground!
After the harvesting was finished, the Celts had a grand celebration. The mistletoe could then be brought into homes to help protect and keep family members alive and well. It also kept them safe from faerie mischief. But it wasn’t just the plant’s presence in the home that helped. The ancient Celts used mistletoe for medicine to cure a long list of illnesses. However, don’t think of trying it out. Most mistletoe is poisonous. Only a few select varieties are not.
Who’ll Stop the Cold?
In addition to believing that Lugh had gone and taken the sun with him, the Celts believed that another deity was the culprit responsible for snow and bad winter weather. Winter, according to Celtic folklore, was brought on each year by the Cailleach, goddess of winter, a shapeshifter usually depicted as an elderly veiled woman. Despite her frail appearance, however, she was tough and powerful! (Read my post about her here).
She was quite important too. Called Beira by the Scots, she was a creator goddess, was said to be the mother of all gods and goddesses, and the maternal ancestor of all Irish men. Each year, she reigned from Samhain (November 1st) until Beltane (May 1st). At some point between February 1st and May 1st every year, the Cailleach was overthrown by the young and beautiful goddess of summer, Brigid, who then brought warmth and sunshine back to the world.
According to folklore, each year on February 1st (Brigid’s Day), people could get a clue how much longer winter would last. The story is that, by the end of January, Beira’s firewood supply would be dwindling, forcing her to go out and cut more for herself. To that end, she would calm the raging winter storms and give herself fine weather to go out in. But some years, she overslept. So, according to tradition, if the weather is good on February 1st, the winter will be long, but if the weather is stormy, winter is nearly over.
An alternate version of the battle between the beings who divide the year into a cold, dark half and a light, warm half is the story of the battles between the Oak King and the Holly King. Twice a year, the two kings battle. The Oak rules the light half of the year and the Holly rules the dark half. At some point during the darkness of winter, the Oak King defeats the Holly, and light and warmth slowly return to the world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tiny snippet of Celtic folklore about winter. Stay warm and well!
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Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.