We all love Christmas! For the religious, it celebrates the important Christian event of the birth of Jesus. If you are not religious, like me, it’s a time for giving, for getting together with family and friends, for feasting, watching movies, playing games, and generally having fun. We need this respite, as winter tightens its dismal icy grip about us.
Our ancestors needed it even more than we do. For them, winter was harsh and bleak, a time of hardship, and a struggle for survival. The return of summer’s warmth and plenty was not, for them, guaranteed.
But then something remarkable happened beneath that cruel, cold wing of seemingly eternal shade. The Winter Solstice was the turning point upon which their fortunes hinged. Light triumphed over darkness as the days lengthened and the nights grew shorter. The sun was growing stronger in the sky. It was a sign, a promise of better times to come. And that was something worth celebrating.
Nollaíg to you, too!
In Ireland, Christmas is known as Nollaíg, which in literal terms means ‘the hinge’ of the year, the turning point of the winter solstice. The solstice is also called Grianstad an Gheimhridh, although you may also hear references to Meán Gheimridh, which means ‘mid-winter’.
Elsewhere, neo-pagans around the world know this festival as Alban Arthuan. According to Druidry.org, this is a Welsh term for ‘light of winter’. Art, however, is an old word used in both Welsh and Irish to mean ‘bear’, and is thought to reference the constellation of the Great Bear, and King Arthur of Holy Grail fame.
To say ‘Happy Christmas’ in Irish, you would say “Nollaig Shona Duit” (pronounced No-lig Ho-nuh Ghwich).
How was the Solstice celebrated?
The ancient Irish were fond of lighting their huge bonfires at festival times. I see no reason why the winter solstice should be any different. In fact, I should think it very likely that in the darkest heart of deep winter, fire would be summoned to represent the heat and light and power of the returning sun.
No doubt there was feasting, drinking, dancing and all sorts of revelry and merry-making. But alongside this, there would have been the more serious overtones of religious ceremony and ritual. Thanks would be given for the return of the Sun-God, and prayers made and blessings sought for bountiful crops and provisions. Perhaps sacrifices were made.
There are many weird and wonderful traditions, some peculiar to Ireland, some more well known, many forgotten, but some adapted and still in use today, which herald from these distant pagan days.
Known in Irish as Brú na Bóinne, meaning ‘the bend in the (River) Boyne‘, and arguably one of Ireland’s best loved and iconic tourist attractions, Newgrange is a large burial mound which is aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice. Older than the Pyramids of Giza, and a thousand years older than Stonehenge, this extraordinary example of ancient engineering is the site of a strange phenomenon.
On the morning of the solstice, as the sun rises, a beam of light enters the mound via a ‘roof-box’ above the main entrance. Over the course of 17 minutes, this sun ray moves along the passage into the central chamber. It’s a magical experience.
Some have explained this as a representation of a fertility rite; the Sun God penetrates the womb of the Earth Mother, thus bringing forth new life. Personally, I am sick of everything which can’t be understood by our modern mindset being reduced to mere phallic symbolism. Our ancestors were more sophisticated than that.
Sun God and Earth Mother
The Dagda and Brigid are the deities supposedly connected with the winter solstice. The Dagda was a High King of the Denann. He was associated with Newgrange and the Winter Sun Standing, which is a reference to the position of the sun at the winter solstice. He could control the seasons with his magical oak harp, Uaithne. He was known to the ancient Irish people as ‘the Good God’ and ollathair, which means ‘all-father’, for his warrior-strength, protection, and generosity.
Brigid was his daughter. Her name is thought to mean ‘fiery arrow’, and indeed she was associated with flame in as much as she was a patron of the forge and smith-craft. At her retreat in Kildare, a flame was lit in her honour, and attended by 19 women, who never allowed it to be extinguished. Brigid was extremely well loved by the people, who refused to give her up and accept Christianity. In time, the tending of the flame was taken over and maintained by nuns in honour of the now Christianised St Brigid.
It surprises me that of all the Irish gods, these two would have such significant roles at this festival. Undoubtedly they were two of the most popular, but there are others more well known to be Earth or Sun connected than these; Anu/ Danu and Eriu, for example, have always been considered Ireland’s Earth Mothers, and Bel or Lugh would have been seen as Sun Gods, although it must be said that Lugh’s name refers more to a ‘flash of lightning’ rather than the light of the sun.
If anything, their roles are reversed; the Dagda would be connected more with the earth, grain and harvesting, and there are those who believe Brigid originated as a sun goddess. Besides, if the light entering Newgrange is indeed a fertility rite, this would indicate an incestuous coupling between the two deities. According to Irish mythology, our ancestors were fairly free with their love, but this would be taking it a step too far…
Ancient Interior Decorating
At the winter solstice, the ancients would decorate their homes with evergreens. You can read more about this here. These plants, which thrived in deep mid winter when everything else died were thought to possess powerful, magical properties.
The Druids would carry out a symbolic cutting of mistletoe, a rare plant they revered for its healing and protective qualities, which they would distribute among the people to be hung up in their homes. In later years, the use of mistletoe was banned by the church on account of its association with Druidry.
Holly was also prized for its glossy green leaves and blood red berries. It was used for medicinal, protective and decorative purposes. After the dreariness of winter, these fresh bright colours must have had quite a rejuvenating effect on one’s spirits.
Battle of the Kings
At the solstice, the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King would often be re-enacted. Nowadays, this fight often takes the form of a battle of wit and words rather than swords. The Holly King represented the old year, his death the fading of winter. The Oak King stood for the return of spring, the new year and new sun.
Yule has its origins in pagan midwinter festivals of Germany. One of their customs seems quite universal, however; the Yule log. In Ireland, it is known as bloc na Nollaíg.
This huge chunk of wood would burn in the home’s central hearth for the duration of the festivities, about twelve days. It would be lit with a piece saved from the previous year’s log, thus continuing the cycle of the seasons and of the sun.
It would smoulder until the end of the festival, when it would be extinguished. Its ashes would then be used to nourish the seeds of the new spring planting, and a sliver reserved to light the following year’s log.
Yes, even this innocent, harmless practice originated with the ancient pagans, and these songs were sung in celebration of the winter solstice. The word ‘carol’ derives from either the French carole, or the Latin carula. It means ‘circular dance’. These songs were probably sung as communities joined in dance around their huge celebratory bonfire, or sacred monuments.
Believe it or not, caroling was actually denounced by the church for hundreds of years for being a sinful remnant of heathen practice. However, as with all other pagan customs, eventually the songs were adopted and adapted by the Christians into the religious Christmas songs we know and love today. Even our secular Christmas songs are categorised as carols.
In Ireland, the day after Christmas Day is known as St Stephen’s Day. Stephen was a first century Christian martyr who was stoned to death when discovered hiding from his enemies. It is said that he was betrayed by the song of a wren. It is also said that many years later, it was a wren which led to the massacre of Irish soldiers by Viking invaders, when it alerted the enemy to the advance of the Irish by beating its wings against their shields.
In return, as punishment for its crimes, every year at the winter solstice, a wren would be caught and stoned to death by a band of boy hunters. It would then be attached to the top of a long staff and paraded through the village. This event was known as Lá an Dreoilín, or Wren Day. It’s a strange custom, one that’s hard to see through to the sense of it, but one explanation is that it could derive from some kind of Samhain or Midwinter sacrifice.
That the poor little wren should be so maligned could have more to do with Christian animosity to its Druidic associations than betrayal. It was a sacred bird, it name coming from drui-en, which means ‘bird of the Druids’. To the Druids, it symbolised wisdom and divinity. In various European languages, its name meant ‘king of birds’, as it continued to sing throughout the deep winter. To my mind, that would give it as much potency as the evergreens which continued to thrive when all else withered; it’s unlikely that the ancestors would have sacrificed such a sacred bird.
There is a lovely story in Celtic mythology about the wren. A contest was held to decide who should be the King of the Birds. The wren suggested it should be whoever could fly the highest. The eagle jumped at this chance to showcase his mighty aerobatics, and launched himself up into the sky. However, he didn’t realise that he had a passenger; the crafty wren had hitched a ride hidden among his feathers. When the eagle reached the limits of his journey, the wren hopped out of hiding and flew up just above the eagle’s head, proclaiming loudly, “Behold your King!” Thus the tiny cunning wren won his place as King of the Birds.
Whether you choose to call it Alban Arthuan, Nollaíg, Grianstad an Gheimhridh, or Christmas, the message behind the festival is clear; it’s about renewal, welcoming the new and letting go of the old. It celebrates the return of the sun, whether seen as the Divine Child, Jesus, or the pagan sun god. It’s about the rebirth of light, warmth, life. It’s about fertility of the earth, animals, and people. It’s survival, and giving thanks for it. Whatever your religion, when it comes down to it, we’re not all that different.
Nollaíg Shona Daoibh
Happy Christmas to all