It is easy to trace our Yuletide traditions back to the pre-Christian, Celtic celebrations of Winter solstice that came before us. The Neolithic people crafted monuments such as Newgrange in Ireland, Maes Howe in Orkney and Bryn Celli Ddu in Ynys Môn, as burial chambers to capture the sun’s rays fully during these solstices. The celtic roots of our Christmas traditions are deep within the earth, in the very core of how we celebrate. Let’s explore this.
In the Celtic times, druids observed the festival of Alban Arthan (also known as Yule) at the time of Winter solstice. They gathered mistletoe from oak trees, in an attempt to ward off evil spirits and grant them good luck. In Norse mythology, mistletoe symbolised love, and so the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was born.
Alban Arthan was commemorated throughout the community by each family bringing a log to add to a large fire. This is because the Celts believed that from 19th - 31st December, the sun stood still. They believed that a flickering, burning fire for these twelve days would persuade the sun to move and force the days to be longer.
The term ‘Christmas’ actually comes from the phrase ‘Mass of Christ’. The actual birth date of Jesus is not given in the Bible. It is thought that the spread of Christianity in the first millenium led to the merging of some pagan and Christian beliefs and celebrations. It is thought that existing Celtic deities were woven with new Christian ones as well, for example Saint Brigid is thought to be derived from the Celtic goddess of fertility, Brigid.
Candle in the Window
This tradition, originating here in Christian Éire, symbolises a welcoming hand to Mary and Joseph as they travelled through Bethlehem in search of shelter. Did you know that during Penal times, the candle burned to indicate a safe place for priests to say Mass?
A ring of holly is displayed on doors of houses throughout the world, however this tradition originated in Ireland. Holly was one of the most flourishing plants at the time, and so allowed the poor to decorate their houses too. All decorations are traditionally taken down on January 6th and it is considered bad luck to take them down beforehand.
The Celtic roots of our Christmas traditions shouldn’t be ignored. Festive celebrations that we often take for granted are deep rooted in our long surviving culture here in Ireland. From the pagan rituals in Ancient Éire to the staunch Christian traditions, the influence is woven into every part of our Christmas time celebrations.