Holly and Evergreens for a Celtic Christmas
Christmas trees come from a Germanic pagan tradition but the Celts also brought evergreens into the house in the winter. Because the plants stayed green and alive during a season when everything else seemed to have died, the Druids believed evergreens contained powerful magic and associated them with rebirth and immortality. Holly and some evergreens that are used annually as Christmas trees have an important place in Celtic folklore.
Aspen: The Whispering Tree
Considered a faerie tree, the aspen pine was classified as sacred by the Druids. In the wind, its leaves tremble and create a shush sound, so it has become known as “The Whispering Tree.” According to the Druids, this whispering was the tree communicating with the ancestors in the Otherworld. The whispering also, according to the lore, gave inspiration to poets.
Cutting an aspen was taboo, especially in the Scottish Highlands where chopping down the tree was equal to murdering a person and resulted in a death sentence. Because of its sacred status and association with faeries, the aspen was not used in building, fishing, or in the making of farm implements. It was, however, used to make shields for warriors. The tree was thought to have protective qualities and shields made from it were believed to protect warriors not only physically but spiritually. Celts protected their homes too by planting aspens nearby.
Because of its evergreen nature, the Celts saw the aspen, as a symbol of endurance and the ability to overcome obstacles. Additionally, they believed it contained the power of immortality.
Twins of the Winter Solstice
The Scots Pine and the yew tree are called “Twins of the Winter Solstice.” The yew represented the old year, death, and darkness while the Scots Pine symbolized the new year, rebirth, and the return of light.
Commonly used as a Christmas tree in the U.S., the Scots Pine is native to both Scotland and Ireland. The Celts saw this evergreen as a symbol of hope that, after the dark of winter, the sun would return. In fact, at the Winter Solstice (on about December 21st, mid-winter to the Celts) the Druids performed rituals designed to coax the sun back. As part of those rituals, glades of Scots Pines were decorated with lights and shiny objects, especially in the form of stars, to represent divine light. Then the Druids made bonfires from Scots Pine wood to celebrate and to hasten the sun’s return.
Folklore about Scots Pines is sparse but historically, they were used in shipbuilding. Also, because the pine grew to impressive heights, they were used to mark crossroads as well as the burial places of chieftains and heroes.
Yew trees, unlike the Scots Pine, are abundant in Celtic folklore. Ancient trees which live for thousands of years, yews have become associated with longevity and immortality. An ancient yew, known as the Fortingall Yew, growing in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland, is believed to be 2,000-3,000 years old. Some experts say it could even be 9,000. Still, because most parts of the tree are poisonous, yews have become a symbol of death as well.
Ironically, the tree also is associated with resurrection and immortality in both the pagan and Christian Celtic traditions. Some of the yew’s branches grow back into the ground to form new trees which twist around the original trunk. In addition, new branches form inside dying ones. The associations with death and resurrection caused these evergreens to be planted in graveyards. Sometimes churches were built near already existing yew groves so a cemetery could be created among these trees. In Celtic folklore, yews came to be considered guardians of the dead, both protecting the deceased and preventing restless spirits from rising out of their graves.
As with other evergreens, the Druids considered yews magically powerful because they stayed vibrant throughout the dead of winter. They categorized the tree as a “Chieftain of the Wood” and treated it as sacred.
The impact of the yew on Celtic culture can be found in Irish place names and personal names. For example, County Mayo, Ireland is Magh Eo in Irish. This translates to “Plain of Yew.” The Irish name Eogan, pronounced “Ewan,” means “born of yew.”
Holly trees, unlike the evergreens above, are not used as Christmas trees. Boughs of holly, however, are a standard yuletide decoration. Celts brought holly branches and leaves into their houses in the winter for two reasons. First, they believed the evergreen’s magic would rub off on the members of the household, keeping them safe and giving them vitality through the harsh winter months. The Celts also believed the boughs of holly would provide a warm refuge for the faeries during the cold season. They hoped that, in return, the Fair Folk would bless the family with health and good luck.
The Celts never would have brought an entire holly into the house because cutting the tree down was forbidden. As mentioned above, it was against the law to fell aspens and yews, but the prohibition against harming a holly was even stronger. The holly is one of the two chief Royals of the Woods. The other is the oak. The Oak King, according to Celtic mythology, ruled during the light half of the Celtic year. The Holly King ruled during the dark half.
According to the folklore, holly trees were protective. Bringing the boughs into the house was believed to ward off evil and witchcraft. The trees were planted near houses because the evergreen was said to guard against lightning. In addition, they were planted in hedgerows as protection against witches who, it was believed, couldn’t get past a holly. Finally, Celtic chieftains wore crowns of holly for good luck and protection.
As you decorate your house for the winter holidays, I hope you’ll keep the Celtic folklore about these evergreens in mind. Whether you decorate with them or not, I wish you the health, longevity, good fortune, and blessings associated with these Celtic trees.
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Slan go foil!
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