Winter Solstice and Christmas Evergreens: Celtic Hope
Next Tuesday, December 21st will be the darkest day of the year. That’s not a prediction; it’s a fact. December 21st is the date of this year’s winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the day with the fewest hours of sunlight. At least, all that is true if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you are in the southern hemisphere, say Australia, Tuesday will be the longest day of the year, summer solstice. Regardless of where you live, it all has to do with the tilt of the earth’s axis in relation to the sun. Since I’m writing this post in the northern hemisphere, I’m going to focus on the winter solstice. My friends in Australia, New Zealand, and so forth, can check out my post on summer solstice here.
Despite being the darkest day of the year, winter solstice was a sacred time for the ancient Celts. Some people still honor the day, and there is good cause to do so. Winter solstice is a time of hope. Immediately following it, the amount of sunlight each day slowly increases. This day in the cold, dark of mid-winter is a turning point that will lead, ultimately, to the light and warmth that is summer solstice. Also coming shortly after winter solstice each year is another day of hope, the Christian holiday of Christmas. Associated with both holy days—Christmas and winter solstice—are certain plants, namely holly, ivy, mistletoe, and pine trees. The ancient Celts believed these evergreens had strong magic within them, and today’s post will discuss the ways the Celts tried to tap into this magic.
Celtic Winter Solstice
For the ancient Celts, winter solstice could be at once magical and frightening. They believed the sun stopped and feared that it might go away altogether. So, they developed rituals to appease the sun god and to encourage, through sympathetic magic, the return of the sun.
They lit bonfires and had a communal celebration. Prayers of petition were offered along with a blood sacrifice of cattle. Once the sacramental meat had been offered up to the gods, the community enjoyed a feast of the rest of the meat. These activities are similar to the way Celts celebrated any of their major holy days, such as Samhain or Beltane. But winter solstice had another ritual not practiced at any other festival. The Celts placed candles and star-like objects in pine trees. They hoped this would help to bring about the gradual return of the sun, its light, and its warmth.
Bringing in the Greenery
Putting lights in the pine trees is a type of sympathetic magic, a way of bringing something about by using an object similar to the thing you want to impact, for example using reddish herbs to help heal circulatory problems.
Around the time of the solstice, the Celts also used evergreens in another ritual of sympathetic magic. They believed these plants had powerful magic within them because they stayed alive and green throughout the winter while other plants seemed dead. In a desire to tap into this magic, they brought evergreens into the house. The Celts hoped that by bringing the greenery into their homes during the winter, the magic that kept the plants alive would rub off on them, helping all in the house to survive the deadly cold of winter and the illnesses that often came with it.
The druids considered ivy sinister, nevertheless, in Celtic folklore, the plant became associated with protection, and was one of the evergreens brought into the house at winter solstice. In the context of sympathetic magic, this makes sense. The plant is hard to destroy. Even if it is cut away, it will grow back. So, if you’re looking for a plant’s ability to survive to rub off on you, ivy’s a good choice. 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.
Holly, as contrasted with ivy, was revered. The druids classified it as both royal and sacred. Cutting the tree down was against the law, but families could take a few branches to bring into their homes. In addition to the sympathetic magic mentioned above, holly was believed to provide protection from evil spirits and bad luck. Additionally, Celtic families brought holly branches into their homes to give faeries a warm place to shelter in during the winter. In return, they believed, the faeries would bless the family with good fortune.
Today, we associate mistletoe with Christmas romance and stolen kisses, but the Celts held it in high esteem. Regarded as sacred, mistletoe could only be harvested during a ritual overseen by a druid. This ritual took place only once a year, on the first new moon of autumn. Celts hung mistletoe in their homes and stables as protection from evil and the mischief of faeries. They used it to treat various ailments, and they believed the presence of mistletoe would give them and their animals fertility and vitality. So, mistletoe was the perfect plant to protect them throughout the treacherous season of winter.
Hope and New Life
Winter is not as life-threatening for most of us as it was for the ancient Celts. Even so, it can be a difficult time. Spending more time indoors because of the cold weather can lead to an increase in illness, such as flu. Of course, this year, new variants of Covid-19 put us at further risk of serious illness. Also, the holidays can be painful for those dealing with the loss of a loved one, whether from the pandemic or another cause, such as school shootings or deadly weather events. For some people, just the oppressive greyness of winter is enough to cause depression. This time of the year can seem very dark, but the Celtic attitude towards the darkest day of the year, winter solstice, can act as a reminder that light and warmth will return. If we do what we can and hold on to hope, we will make it through this winter. We are traveling towards spring and new life.
I wish you blessings of health, hope, and healing.
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Slan go foil!
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