Christmas and the Celtic Winter Solstice: Roots Entwined

By Brian McGowan

Many religious traditions and observances have their roots in pre-Christian beliefs, and Christmas is no exception. Bear in mind that sacred scripture says nothing definitive about when Jesus was born. It wasn’t until the 4th century A.D. that church leaders superimposed the birth of Christ on an already existing celebration, the winter solstice. A brilliant stroke!

The winter solstice, which can occur anywhere between Dec. 18 and 23, marks when the sun has reached its lowest point on the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere. The darkness of night is at its longest, and daylight at its shortest. The sun on these days appears to rise in the same spot, and set in the same spot. In fact, the meaning of the word solstice is just that – “sun stand still.”

The ancient Celts and their priests, the Druids, celebrated this event in many ways, ranging from festive to somber. Putting the somber first, it is on this day at Neolithic tombs such as Newgrange in Ireland and others throughout the nations of the “Celtic Fringe,” are aligned to carry the sun’s light through long passageways into the very heart of tombs, illuminating burial chambers in a fleeting period of absolutely blazing light – but only on these days of the solstice, and no other.

For the Celts, this ushered in a 12-day period of celebration, running from Dec. 25 and ending on Jan. 6. By the 8th century A.D., the church adopted the entire 12 days as part of the Christmas observance, and the Twelve Days of Christmas was born. In Ireland, the 25th is called Nollaig Mór, or Big Christmas. Jan. 6 is called Nollaig Beag, or Little Christmas, a term I recall being used in my own family many years ago. A present or two was always reserved for this “end-of-season” milestone.

A key ingredient of Celtic celebrations was mistletoe, a revered healing and fertility plant found mainly on oak, ash and apple trees. Long before the Germanic-influenced Christmas tree made its way indoors, a bough of mistletoe would be placed inside the front entrance of a dwelling, there to garb the inhabitants with its protective magic. Oak and ash were particularly sacred to the Druids, as was the holly tree. Small wonder many of these have survived as Christian traditions.

In fact, the genius of early church leaders is that they recognized that the easiest path to acceptance of a new religion would be to layer it on top of older, established themes and celebrations, rather than start anew. The newly-converted could easily re-associate a festival honoring the annual conquest of darkness by light with a new belief centered on Jesus as “the light of the world.”

Of course, adherents to the new also remembered the old ways, and frequently needed reminding that it was the new religion they were now devotees of, and not the old. Traces of the old abound. The Celts celebrated with fire for the 12 days of the solstice festival. An Irish tradition is to place a lighted candle in the window for the 12 days of Christmas. Evergreen branches, holly, mistletoe and yew all have their roots in pre-Christian times.

Now, for a libation on those cold “changing-of-the-year nights,” you may consider a glass of mulled wine, a favored beverage of clan chieftains of old during the solstice/Christmas celebrations. Be warned, this recipe will quench more than a few thirsts.

Ingredients: 1 magnum of good quality red wine; 1 ½ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg; ½ tsp. ground ginger; ½ tsp. ground cinnamon; 1 tsp. whole allspice; 1 tsp. whole cloves; and 1 cinnamon stick.

Simmer gently in a large saucepan for one hour, being careful not to boil. Strain through a cheesecloth. Serve warm. Sweeten with honey or sugar to taste.

Whatever slant colors one’s beliefs, the point is the same: banish darkness and welcome light. As the Irish say in their native tongue: “Nollaig Shona Duit!” Pronounced “no-leg show-na ditch.” It means “Happy Christmas to you!”

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.                                                                      

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