Celtic Christmas Traditions: Candles, Greenery, Blessings and More
Origins of Celtic Christmas
Christmas has been marked in Ireland since St. Patrick brought Christianity to the island in the fifth century. Over the centuries, pagan Celtic customs merged with Christianity to produce some uniquely Celtic Christmas traditions for the winter festival. While not all are practiced today, some can still be seen—customs which date back to earlier, less commercial times.
Before the coming of Christianity, the people of Ireland practiced a pagan druidic religion which gave them a keen sense of their connection with the natural world. Like with many earlier peoples around the world, the winter solstice of 21st December was particularly important to the Gaelic Irish. The winter solstice is the shortest day/longest night of the year. However, for the Celts it marked the turning point in the year. In the dark and cold of winter, at solstice the sun begins the long journey back towards its midsummer peak.
Fires and Candles
The Celts celebrated the turning point of the sun with fires in sacred places such as the Hill of Tara. The use of fire to mark the winter solstice may have contributed to the more recent Irish tradition of placing a candle in the window of your house during the twelve days of the Christmas season. It is the time of year when the Celts, just like people all across the world, want to rekindle the light of love and hope in their lives.
Some Celtic Christmas Customs
A Candle in the Window
As well as a throw-back to the ancient Celtic custom of using fire to celebrate the turning point of the year, this tradition is said to be aimed at welcoming travellers to your home. The candle in the window marks the way to warmth and hospitality to anyone who finds themselves, like Mary and Joseph in the New Testament, without a place to stay at Christmastime.
The druids of the ancient Celtic world used evergreen branches to symbolize the eternal nature of the human soul. In Christian times, the tradition of bringing evergreen branches into an Irish home has continued as a symbol of the eternal life brought about by Christ’s resurrection. In Celtic countries, evergreen branches such as holly and yew are more traditional than the German custom of bringing an entire tree into the home.
The Killing of the Wren
The wren was believed to be an unlucky bird, due to an old legend, and on St. Stephen’s Day (26th December), young men would roam the countryside together hunting wrens with their slingshots. If a wren was killed, it would be mounted on a pole and carried from house to house. Although this tradition has all but disappeared, it was once an important part of the Christmas season in rural Ireland. Instead, the habit of visiting each other’s houses on 26th December has continued, without hunting small birds!
Irish Christmas Blessings
- In Irish (Gaelic) Nollaig Shona Duit means 'Happy Christmas to you.' It is pronounced no-leg show-na ditch.
- A traditional Irish Christmas blessing in English is: 'May peace and plenty be the first to lift the latch on your door, and happiness be guided to your home by the candle of Christmas.'
- At New Year's, it is traditional in Ireland to say 'Go mbeire muid beo ar an am seo arís.' In English, this means 'May we be alive at this time next year . . . '