Christmas Decorating and Celtic Folklore: A Surprising Connection
It’s been a week and a day since Thanksgiving. It’s time for Christmas decorations! You don’t have to be Christian to enjoy them. There is a secular side to the celebration. All the inflatable Santas, reindeer, elves, and candy canes are just fun. And the lights are beautiful. Do you ever wonder, though, where some of the most traditional, non-religious decorations associated with Christmas, such as holly and ivy, mistletoe, and pine trees ablaze with lights originated? Just what exactly does holly, for example, have to do with the holiday?
Sometimes, people will apply Christian symbolism to these decorations, but they were a part of winter celebrations that predated the worldwide spread of Christianity. Before converting to the new religion, ancient Celts used these plants in their celebration of the winter solstice. They also used them in sympathetic magic rituals to help themselves survive the harsh winter months. When the Celts converted to Christianity, they held onto these symbols and rituals, incorporating them into the celebration of Christmas.
Considered sacred in pre-Christian Celtic culture, mistletoe was used for much more than an excuse for stealing a kiss. The plant could not simply be cut from a tree. A ritual was required to harvest it. A Druid presided over the ritual and, while one person climbed the tree to cut the mistletoe, other assistants stood below holding a sheet, stretched open and ready to catch the plant. It was too holy to touch the ground! After the harvesting ritual was completed, cattle were sacrificed in thanksgiving.
So, why all the fuss? First, Celts believed mistletoe was placed on trees by a god, specifically Taranis, the god of thunder. They believed the plant contained his essence. In addition, because the plant is semi-parasitic, leeching nutrients from the host tree, the Celts believed the mistletoe took on the magical properties of that tree. Anyone possessing the plant, folklore claimed, could acquire those qualities. Mistletoe attached to oak trees was considered the most sacred and potently magical. Oak trees, in Celtic culture, were associated with strength and longevity. Therefore, mistletoe harvested from oaks could give a person long life. Because it is an evergreen, the Celts associated mistletoe with health and fertility. Again, they believed possessing this plant could impart those qualities to humans and livestock.
The Celts also used mistletoe as a medicine. In fact, it was considered a cure-all. Beware, however, while its berries provide food for birds during the winter, they are toxic for humans. Don’t consume this plant at all as its leaves are poisonous too. Ironically, the Celts carried a sprig of mistletoe as a protection against poisoning.
Even after the Celtic lands were converted to Christianity, mistletoe was hung in houses and stables for protection from evil and faerie mischief. And it became a part of decking the house out for Christmas. Today, in Ireland, mistletoe is hung in homes as a symbol of peace and goodwill and is used as a means of attracting love into the home.
Evergreens in the House: Holly and Ivy
In Celtic folk tradition, evergreens were brought into the home during winter as a type of sympathetic magic. Because these plants stayed green and alive throughout winter, a season when most things seem to have died, the Celts considered them highly magical and powerful. Just as with mistletoe, they believed they could tap into this magic and the ability of the evergreens not only to survive the winter but to thrive. So, to help their families get safely through the long, dangerous winter months, Celts brought evergreens into their homes. Two of the most frequently used plants were holly and ivy.
In Celtic folklore, holly trees are considered protective and are planted near homes to ward off lightning. In addition, they are planted in hedgerows as protection against all forms of evil, especially witchcraft. According to the lore, the holly prevents witches from getting through the hedgerow. Chieftains wore crowns of holly for good luck and protection.
The Druids classified holly as a royal tree (along with oak) and treated it with reverence. Cutting this evergreen down was forbidden. Still, Celts attempted to tap into its perceived magic and protective qualities by bringing holly branches, berries, and leaves into their homes for the winter. Not only was this seen as a way to keep the family alive and well during the cold months, boughs of holly, Celtic folklore said, provided a warm refuge for faeries who, in turn, would bless the family with health and good luck.
Ivy did not share the same good opinion among the Celts as holly did. The Druids considered it a sinister plant. Strangely, despite ivy’s reputation as sinister, Celtic folklore says that ivy growing near or on your home will bring your family good fortune. Unless the plant falls down or dies. Then catastrophe will befall your household.
The Druids believed ivy contained powerful magic. This evergreen is hard to kill. If you cut it, it will grow back. So, if you’re looking for a plant whose magic, if it rubs off on you, will impart enough vitality and hardiness to get you through the winter, ivy’s a good candidate. So, it was brought indoors during the cold season. And that may have been a great move. Modern science has discovered that ivy works as an air purifier. Perhaps families who brought it into their houses benefited from its effect on their environment.
Pines Bedecked with Lights and Shiny Objects
Christmas trees are a chief decoration for the season, and they generally are evergreens—pines and firs. However, ancient Celts did not bring these evergreens into their homes for the winter. Instead, at winter solstice (usually December 21st or 22nd in the northern hemisphere), they went into pine groves and decorated the trees with lights and shiny star-shaped objects. They did this to encourage the return of the sun. Winter solstice is the longest and darkest day of the year. Even though the magic ritual wasn’t necessary for the eventual return of the sun and warmer temperatures, the Celts had the right idea. Winter solstice is a turning point. Literally. The earth’s axis tilts in relation to the sun and, little by little, the minutes of daylight will increase each day and, eventually, temperatures will get warmer. This will continue until the summer solstice (occurring on or near June 21st).
Although the tradition of decorating Christmas trees is often said to have begun in medieval Germany, and Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing the idea of having a Christmas tree in the home, you can see that the ancient Celts had a hand in this tradition. So, the next time you put a star on the top of your Christmas tree (if you have one), give a thought of thanks to the ancient Celts.
There you have it. Ancient Celtic folk traditions play a role in our contemporary Christmas decorating. Who’d have thought it? I could go into how the Holly King, who defeats the Oak King around the time of the winter solstice bears a striking resemblance to Father Christmas and could be an inspiration for Santa Claus, but, well, I’ll save it for another time. Wishing you joy as we near the winter season.
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Slan go foil!