Alban Arthuan: The Celtic Origin of Christmas
Nearly every holiday celebration we have today can be traced back to Celtic history and traditions. Samhain (sow-in) has influenced the time of year and our celebrations of Halloween and All Souls Day. (November 2).
Celtic traditions have also blended with Christianity to influence our Christmas celebrations. The Yule, the New Year, Hogmany, Christmas and the Winter Solstice have uniquely blended over time and fit into our Christmas celebrations.
The Celtic festival of Alban Arthuan, held on the Winter Solstice on December 21, was a Druid festival celebrating the re-birth of the sun. It means "Light of Arthur" according to the Arthurian legend.
The Winter Solstice celebrated the return of the Divine Child, the Mabon, the rebirth of the golden solstice Sun. King Arthur was symbolized by the Sun.
The Celts believed this great ritual was needed to revert the course of the sun. The day after the winter solstice, the sun began to move higher into the sky; proof to the Celts it had been reborn.
The return of the Sun was more than just a celebration to the Celts, it was a matter of life or death. The alignment of light at Newgrange, (Bru no Bhoinne) a tomb and temple structure in Ireland, has been interpreted as a ray of light by the Sun God into the womb of Mother Earth to bring about the creation of new life in spring.
Other monuments in the British Isles aligned with the winter solstice are:
- Knowth and Loughcrew, also in Ireland
- Maes Howe in Orkney, Scotland
- Seven Mile Cursus in Dorset, England
- Stonehenge in England.
Another Celtic tradition was the belief in the perpetual battle between the Oak King, the God of waxing light or the Divine Child and the Holly King, the God of the waning light or the Dark Lord. Each year at the winter solstice the Oak King won the battle and ruled until he was defeated by the Holly King at the time of the summer solstice.
The deities of Alban Arthuan were Dagda and Brighid. The cauldron of Dagda was a symbol for the promise that nature would bear fruit once again and care for all beings living on earth. Brighid was the bearer of the flame of inspiration which penetrated the darkness of mind and soul.
Again, the central and essential celebration of Alban Arthuan was that of renewal. The Celts believed in leaving the past behind and greeting the new present.
It marked the celebration of both the shortest day of the year and the longest night of the year. It is considered to be a time of increased fertility and is one of the Celtic fire festivals as well. It is also where we get the tradition of the Yule Log.
Yule and the Yule Log runs the eve before the winter solstice to New Year's Day, or Hogmany to the Celts. It was a time of introspection and planning for the future.
Early Celtic calendars measured months according to the moon's revolution of the earth. The custom of burning the Yule Log was performed to honor the Great Mother Goddess. The log was lit on the eve of the solstice, the darkest night, using the remains of the log from the previous year and burned for twelve days for good luck. The Celts believed the sun stood still for the twelve days. It symbolized the continuity of life and light, from the "dark night of our souls" would spring the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire and the Light of the World. This is where we get the contemporary "twelve days of Christmas."
During this coldest season of the year the Celts sought to connect the old and new through song and dance representing the death and re-birth of the new year. The birth of the sun worked well with the Christian celebration of birth of the Son of God who brings light to the world.
The decorating of a Yule tree also originated with the Celts. Brightly colored decorations were hung on a tree, usually a pine tree to symbolize life, which were of significance to the Celts such as the sun, the moon and the stars. The tree also represented the souls of those who had died the previous year.
The modern practice off gift giving evolved from the Celtic tradition of hanging gifts on the Yule tree as offerings to various pagan gods and goddesses.
The tradition of "Father Christmas" or "Santa Claus" also an be traced back to Celtic roots. Santa's elves are the modernization of "Nature Folk" or faeries of pagan religions.
Even Santa's reindeer are associated with the "Horned God" one of the Celtic deities. The "Horn Dance" was performed from All Souls Day (November 2) to Twelfth Night (January 6) in hopes of bringing in luck for the New Year.
This tradition comes from Celtic Britain where eight men danced through their village with antler horns on their heads in order to "bring luck" to the new year. It was thought to have origins in the pre-Christian fertility rites.
The tradition of Christmas caroling comes from the Celts as well. A carol is a dance of a song of praise and joy. The song was meant for dancing especially to honor the changing of the seasons, not just the winter season, but every season. The music and dancers went from dwelling to dwelling performing their solstice songs.
Carols viewed as overly pagan origins reflected the agricultural cycle of the year by celebrating the change in seasons. Over time these folk melodies were adopted to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The music for our present Christmas carols originated with the Celts; for example
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
- The First Noel
- I Saw Three Ships
- While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
- O Come, O Come Emmanual
- Wexford Carol
The Laying of the Holly
Holly is one of the plants that is one of the symbols commonly associated with Christmas. It has been part off the Winter Solstice and Christmas celebration for more than two thousand years.
Today, as in Celtic times, we lay holly around the house and we use it in our Christmas wreaths. It is associated with the sun god (Saturn) from ancient Rome. It was also important in Druidic religion and customs.
In Celtic times it was customary to place holly leaves and branches around their homes and dwellings during the winter. It was believed that tiny faeries that inhabited the forests would come to their homes and use the holly as shelter against the cold.
The Druids believed holly remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when deciduous trees had lost their leaves. The red and holly berries were believed to represent the sacred menstrual blood of their Mother Goddess.
The Celts also laid holly around their homes and dwellings to decorate doors and windows so it would capture evil spirits before they entered the house.
As the British Isles converted to Christianity, early Christians adopted the tradition of decorating their homes with holly. Christians began to incorporate holly into their own religion and the red holly berries now symbolized the blood of Christ.
The Hanging of the Mistletoe
The Celts used mistletoe as a healing plant as their superstitions and mythical beliefs told them mistletoe bestowed miraculous healing powers. It was known to mean "All Heal" in Celtic languages.
In Celtic times, it was believed that mistletoe held the soul of the oak tree, its host tree. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows in the boughs of trees, one of them being the oak tree.
Mistletoe was believed to have the power to heal diseases, make poisons harmless, give fertility to humans and animals, protect them from witchcraft, ban all evil spirits, and bring good luck and great blessings.
Mistletoe was so sacred to the Celts, that enemies who happened to meet beneath it in the forest, would lay down their arms and exchange a friendly greeting and keep a truce until the following day.
From this old custom grew the practice of suspending mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all. The tradition and custom of kissing under the mistletoe did not start until English Victorian times when this became a popular item.
Druids held a special five day ceremony after the new moon following the Winter Solstice. They would cut boughs of mistletoe from the sacred Oak tree with a golden sickle. It was important that the mistletoe branches did not touch the ground and become contaminated.
The Druid priests would then divide up the mistletoe boughs into sprigs and distribute them among the people who believed it protected them from storms and evil spirits.
St. Stephen's Day and the Hunting of the Wren
St. Stephen's Day, December 26, and the Hunting of the Wren, are Irish Celtic traditions. St. Stephen's Day celebrates the death of the first Christian martyr. It was believed by the Celts that the "chattering" of the wren betrayed St. Stephen to his enemies as he tried to hide from them in a bush.
Thereafter, the wren was to be hunted down and stoned to death. Celtic men armed with sling shots would hunt down the wren and kill it. Today, the wren is captured and thought to bring good luck for the new year. It was believed the wren was the cleverest bird of all.