• Christine Dorman

Winter Solstice in Celtic Tradition

Winter Solstice is the shortest, darkest day of the year, but, for the Celts, it symbolized rebirth and renewal.

Tomorrow, December 21, 2019, is the darkest day, the longest night. Let’s celebrate! It’s Winter Solstice, an event Celts and ancient cultures across the world saw as a cause for hope. Even today, many people and cultures celebrate this solstice and some consider it sacred. Why? Keep reading.

What is Winter Solstice? While many people and cultures consider it an important day in the year, technically it is only a moment (well, really two moments which happen about a half a year apart). They occur in mid-June in the southern hemisphere and around December 21st or 22nd in the northern hemisphere. Dictionary.com defines Winter Solstice this way: “It is an astronomical event, the time at which the axial tilt is at its farthest point from the sun” (https://www.dictionary.com/e/winter-solstice/ ). Huh?

So what exactly is an “axial tilt”? Okay, more science talk: “Axial tilt is an astronomical term regarding the inclination angle of a planet's rotational axis in relation to a perpendicular to its orbital plane” (https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/axial_tilt.htm). Long story short, Winter Solstice occurs when either of the earth’s poles (southern or northern) is tilted the farthest away from the sun as it will get all year. This, from an astronomical point of view, determines the beginning of winter. So much for science. Let’s talk culture and folklore.

Since long before looking at the world from a scientific point of view took hold, cultures across the world have considered Winter Solstice as a day, and a significant one at that. It is the shortest day (it has the fewest hours of sunlight) and the longest night of the year and genuinely is a turning point. Immediately after Winter Solstice, the days begin growing incrementally longer. In other words, there is more sunlight.

To the Celts, this was cause for hope. Winter was long, harsh, and difficult to survive. Even today—in first world countries—winter can be treacherous. People who are poor can’t afford proper heating and every year, people die from that. They also die from influenza and pneumonia, among other respiratory illnesses. Imagine how scary the long winter was for ancient Celts. So the idea that the sun was returning was a hope for Spring and a great reason for celebrating. Just as Samhain started a journey into the darkness and death, the Winter Solstice began the journey towards the light and new life. To the Celts, Winter Solstice symbolized rebirth and renewal. To the Celts, Winter Solstice symbolized rebirth and renewal.

Winter scenes can be beautiful but winters can be long, harsh, and difficult to survive.

They responded by having a big feast and lighting bonfires. Cattle were slaughtered, which served as a thanksgiving blood sacrifice but also provided meat for the feast. There was a practicality to this ritual as well. In slaughtering most of the herd, the Celts reduced the amount of food needed to feed the cattle, grain that they might need to feed themselves during the long winter months!

Celtic folklore played a part in Winter Solstice as well. The story is that, at Winter Solstice, the Holly King battled the Oak King (the holly and oak being the two royal trees of the forest). The Holly King ruled over midsummer to mid-winter. The Oak King ruled over mid-winter to midsummer. At Winter Solstice, the Oak King conquers (temporarily) the Holly King. The Oak rules over (surprise!) the light half of the year, so that means the sun will return. The Holly also was represented by a wren and the Oak by a robin. This will be discussed further in a post on the Irish tradition of hunting and killing the wren on St. Stephen’s Day.

Celtic folklore says that, at Winter Solstice, the Holly King is defeated by the Oak King.

Speaking of the day after Christmas (St. Stephen’s Day or Boxing Day), there are rituals and traditions associated with Celtic Winter Solstice that transitioned into Christmas traditions, such as bringing in the greenery (holly, ivy, and mistletoe). Next week’s post will be about holly and ivy (and a bit about the yule log).

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Happy Solstice! Happy Chanukah! Nollaig Shona (Merry Christmas)!

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