Holiday Evergreens | Celtic Cultural Minute
The journey of winter is upon us; and this month we’ll travel thoughout the Celtic countries, where the traditions and celebrations of Yule, St. Andrew’s Day, Hogmany, Christmas and the Winter Solstice all, in their own way, search out the light found in the midst of darkest, coldest night, with song and dance, fire and feasting.
In the Celtic world, to prepare for the winter holidays, living greens would be gathered, a tradition that has come down to our own Christmas time. Rather than a tree, families went out into the woods and gathered holly bushes to decorate with both inside and out. In Ireland, holly was so common that there was plenty for everyone, rich and poor alike, and finding a bush laden with bright red berries was thought to be a special omen of good luck in the New Year. Holly was beloved by the ancient Druids for it’s ever-green beauty in the midst of winter, and because small birds, animals and insects could shelter in it. That gift of protection and shelter was part of the gift of the holly to one’s home at the winter holidays as well, and it's why it was so important to hang it around your doors and windows, as well as over the hearth.
Mistletoe was even more powerful. The old Celtic name for mistletoe means “All Heal” and the ancient Celts believed mistletoe had magical healing powers, and that it held the soul of the tree that it was found on. It was thought to heal disease, give fertility to both animals and humans, to protect from witchcraft and evil spirits, and to bring luck and blessings. It was considered so sacred, that it is said that enemies who chanced to meet beneath a mistletoe branch in the forest would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings and honor a truce between them until the next day. From this grew our own custom of hanging a sprig of mistletoe in the doorway as a token of good will to all who enter.
In many Celtic lands, and eventually throughout Europe, the ceremonial Yule log was a highlight of the winter festivals. In most traditions, the log must either have been harvested from your own land, or given as a gift. It must never, ever have been bought. Once hauled into the house and placed in the fireplace, it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, dusted with flour, and set ablaze by a piece of last year's log. Oak or Ash are the traditional woods for a Yule log, and ash is strongly connected to sun and solstice traditions. Ash is also the sacred world tree of the Teutons, and there are other hints of Norse and Viking influence in these early Celtic mid-winter celebrations.
So…before the holiday hustle and bustle becomes deafening, why not take a long winter’s walk in the quiet woods and gather something evergreen, to bring the magic of this midwinter time back to your own hearth.
For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte.