Celtic Light in Midwinter
Next Monday, December 21st is the Winter Solstice, one of the four Celtic fire festivals and the shortest day of the year. Although it is the darkest day of the year, it also is a symbol of hope. The solstice is followed soon after by another day of hope, the Christian holiday of Christmas. Both festivals are about the coming of the light and about death and darkness leading to new life. In the midst of the Covid pandemic, the arrival of a vaccine is a light in the darkness. Unfortunately, most people won’t be able to take it until March at the earliest. Meanwhile, in the U.S., more than 3,000 people are dying every day. That number is expected to increase. According to the experts, we have entered the darkest period so far. Celtic folk beliefs and traditions—pagan and Christian—offer a model of hope in the midst of death and darkness, a firm belief that light and new life are coming.
It might seem odd to think of December 21st as the middle of winter. According to the calendar used in Europe and the Americas today, winter doesn’t even officially begin until December 21st. It will end (according to the same calendar) on March 20, 2021. In the Celtic view of time, however, winter began at Samhain (November 1st), which also was the start of the dark half of the year. For the ancient Celts, the solstice was a time when surviving the winter became a prime concern. Stores of food and firewood were starting to dwindle. Families were isolated in snow-surrounded farms and had to worry about whether or not there would be enough vital supplies to survive until spring. And there was no guarantee when that would be. Winter wasn’t over until Brigid, the goddess of summer, defeated the goddess of winter, the Cailleach. This could happen anywhere from Brigid’s Day (February 2nd) to Beltane (May 1st). Additional lore taught that light and warmth would return only after the Oak King, ruler of the light half of the year, overcame the Holly King, ruler of the dark.
Despite uncertainty about how long the cold and darkness would last, and despite the apparent need to depend upon the powers that be, the Celts took active measures to encourage the return of the sun. They put lights and shiny, star-like objects into pine trees and lit bonfires. They believed that, in the days surrounding the winter solstice, the sun stood still and, if they were faithful and thorough in the way they performed these rituals, the sun would reverse its course. Light, warmth, and life would slowly return.
Modern science reveals that their thinking wasn’t all that far from the truth. Of course, the sun doesn’t reverse course but the tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun changes. Every year, at the Autumnal Equinox (September 22/23 in the northern hemisphere), the number of hours of sunlight and darkness are approximately the same. From that point on, the hours of daylight decrease and nights are longer. But, at the Winter Solstice, this reverses. Immediately following it, days become longer and nights shorter. Eventually, the season of light and warmth returns.
In winter, Celts also focused on endurance, rebirth, and immortality. Evergreens were thought to embody these qualities. This is why lights were put in pine trees. In addition, Celts brought holly and ivy into their homes in the hope that these plants would impart some of the powerful magic which kept them green throughout the winter to the members of the household.
To the Celts, the most sacred of the evergreens was mistletoe. They believed it was so highly magical, it had to be cut down by a sacred ritual performed by a Druid priest. This holy harvesting took place only once a year, six days after the first new moon of autumn. Mistletoe then was hung in homes and stables to protect against evil and faerie mischief. The Celts also believed the plant bestowed fertility and vitality which would protect them throughout the winter season.
As the Celts transitioned from paganism to Christianity, they continued many of the same winter traditions. Pines decorated with lights and shiny objects easily became Christmas trees. Even today, trimming the house with holly and ivy, and hanging mistletoe are traditional Christmas activities. But the Irish have two more Christmas traditions which harken back to winter solstice practices. They light a yule log and place a candle in the window. The lighting of the log is done to rid the house of evil and bring blessings for the new year. The candle in the window is said to be for Mary and Joseph who, though they found no room at the inn, are welcome in the Irish homes. Clearly this is in keeping with Celtic hospitality but scholars believe the custom grew out of winter solstice practices.
The Winter Solstice and Christmas share more than folk traditions. Both holidays share similar concepts: the coming of the light, new life, and immortality. Christians believe that at Jesus’ birth, the Light came into the world. Just as ancient Celts believed the Divine Light, the sun, would return and bring with it rebirth and new life, Christians see Christmas as the coming of the Son of God who alleviates the darkness of sin and brings humankind to new life through baptism and the forgiveness of sin. The fulfillment of the hope of the Winter Solstice and of Christmas, though, require patient waiting. Both are just the beginning. The coming of light and new life celebrated at the solstice will take months to fulfill. Similarly, the promise of new life promised at Jesus’ birth will not be fulfilled until Easter. In both cases, the promise is realized in the spring and, in both cases, the Celts—pagan and Christian—steadfastly believed and waited amidst cold, bleak darkness.
This winter of 2020, we, like the wise men who saw a star rise in the east, have been given a sign that salvation is at hand. A vaccine for Covid 19 has been created and is being distributed. Still, we have a long wait ahead of us. It will be spring or even the summer of 2021 before the darkness and death of this winter begins to dissipate and we are reborn into a pandemic-free life. Yet we can be encouraged to hope in signs as, each morning, we see our own star rise in the east.
In the meantime, we, like the Celts at Winter Solstice can take active measures to bring about change. These measures are masking, social distancing, and hand-washing. Also we can practice Celtic hospitality. A main tenet of Celtic hospitality is to protect your guest. By wearing masks and maintaining social distance, we keep safe all those we welcome into our space.
Like the Celts, we will get through this period of darkness and isolation by taking these active measures and holding onto the belief that in a relatively short time, this season of darkness and death will end and life will be renewed for us all.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Please LIKE and SHARE it. You can SUBSCRIBE to the blog for FREE by clicking the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of this page.
To celebrate the holidays, I will be taking the next two weeks off, so next week I will share an updated version of my 2019 post on mistletoe. The following week I will reprint my most popular post: “Beware the Celtic Tree Spirit!”
Wishing you a happy solstice, a Merry Christmas, and a New Year filled with blessings!
Nollaig Shon Daoibh!
Searching to improve your writing? Let me mentor you in the art and skill of creative writing. Click here for details.