Why We Really Celebrate Christmas

The Winter Solstice

And it’s nothing to do with Jesus! Not originally anyway. No, Christmas (aka “yule” here in the UK), was a time when the Celts celebrated the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year.

That’s a pretty bold opening statement! I should say before going on that I have nothing against celebrating Jesus’ birth at this time of year. My sole purpose in writing this post was to explore the origins of this celebration, see what traditions we still stick to today and their believed original purpose. If anything, it is written as a way to bring us together, regardless of personal beliefs and reasons for celebrating so apologies for any offence caused.

So far this year I’ve already posted about other celebrations such as Midsummer/Litha, Harvest/Mabon and Halloween/Samhain. Each time, I’ve been delighted to discover more about our ancestral origins and just how many of these are still celebrated, whether under a different name and/or for different reasons, today. Our past history and heritage it seems is very much alive and present now – as long as you know where to look.

Of all the celebrations of modern times, in the UK, Christmas seems to be the most popular, despite the fact that many of those celebrating don’t attend church, read the bible or indeed consider themselves of the Christian faith. Could it be that remnants of the old faith and beliefs of the Celts are inadvertently celebrated without many of us realising?

Before becoming known as “Christmas” or Christ-mass, a day to remember Jesus and specifically that he was born to die for us all, the Romans celebrated this time as “Saturnalia”, held in honour of the God of Agriculture, Saturn. Even before that, the Celtic people celebrated this time as “Yule”, a term which is still synonymous in modern parlance with Christmas today. The term Yule is believed to have come from the Celtic word for wheel “houl” as it linked back to the Wheel of the Year, the solstices, equinoxes and the changing of the seasons.

Wheel of the Year

Yule was a time when it was believed that the Sun stood still for twelve days, with the Druids (Celtic priests) lighting a yule log to overcome the darkness, expel evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year. Mistletoe would be cut from the sacred Oak trees, symbolic of life continuing even in the darkest of days. Essentially, it was a time to celebrate the return of the days getting longer and the nights getting shorter – the rebirth of the Sun.

It’s almost impossible not to see the parallel with the later Christian faith and tradition of Christmas of the “birth of the Son” with the “rebirth of the Sun” as well as the Twelve Days of Christmas, with the Twelve Days of Yule, mistletoe and burning of the yule log still celebrated in modern times, often without ever realising their true origins. We celebrate Christmas as the day of the Son of God’s birth; the Celts celebrated Yule, in essence, as the Sun’s birthday. Are we not all celebrating the same thing just under a different name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet Capulet, Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare

Some other traditions of Yule the Celts celebrated:

  • Hanging of evergreens such as mistletoe and holly around windows and doors. Mistletoe’s white berries were said to represent the white semen of the life-giving male hence kissing under the mistletoe today. Holly, with its red berries, is representative of feminine blood;
  • Evergreen wreaths were made symbolic of the Wheel of the Year decorated with evergreens such as mistletoe and holly but also ivy, yew and pine and hung on doors;
  • Living tree brought indoors to keep wood spirits warm throughout the winter and decorated with treats and food for them to eat;
  • Exchanging of gifts in celebration of the festival of light out of darkness and the birth of the Sun.
  • Drinking of spiced cider (apples representing the Sun) and eating of fruits, nuts, turkey with sage, cinnamon, nutmeg and the like being used for flavour;
  • Offerings of spiked oranges to also represent the Sun;
  • Lighting of bonfires;
  • Wearing of colours red, green, gold, white, silver, yellow and orange;
  • Singing of carols generally and wassailing of trees.

I love that regardless of faith or background, so many of these are still celebrated at this time of the year today, whether originating with the Celts or other ancestors, as of course we’re unlikely to ever know the true original source of many of these traditions.

This year, the Winter Solstice falls on 22 December 2019 and I for one am really looking forward to celebrating Christmas with this new knowledge of how my Celtic ancestors were celebrating themselves at this time. Which of these traditions will you be keeping alive?

Wishing you all a very happy Winter Solstice celebration!

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