Idyllic Imbolc

The Wheel of the Year Continues to Turn…

January is often described as feeling like the longest month of the year. After the fun and frivolity of Christmas and New Year celebrations, the first few weeks of the year in comparison can seem bleak and boring, devoid of anything to look forward to.

But, slowly we begin to notice little signs that the harshness of Winter is beginning to fade: the sun rises a little earlier and sets a little later, greenery starts to sprout in the soil and in the trees. Mama Earth is beginning to awaken.

In the Celtic calendar, this time of year, around 1 February, was known as Imbolc, said to mean “in the belly”, or pregnant. It is as if the earth is pregnant, expectant and alive with the promise of the coming of the Spring once again. Just like an expectant mother feels the quickening of the child in the womb in the weeks before its birth, there are signs of life stirring starting to emerge.

Those who celebrate Imbolc take this time to honour the Irish Goddess Brigid, particularly known as a Goddess of fire, the sun and the hearth, of healing, poetry and smith-craft. She is the Goddess of fertile lands and people, with obvious links to midwifery and newborns. She is the maiden of the Triple Goddess.

Traditionally in the farming calendar, this time of year was also known as Oimelc – ewes’ milk – because it marks the start of the lambing season, whilst in the Christian calendar it is celebrated as Candlemas. The Goddess Brigid was so popular amongst the Celtic people that she was supposedly carried on within the Christian faith as St Bridget.

Our ancestors would have celebrated this time as one of their several fire festivals held throughout the year as well as a time of renewal, dedication and purification, with feasting and decorating of their homes, particularly their hearths, with a Brigid cross or doll.

Ways for you to mark the promise of Spring might be with the planting of a few seeds, a cleansing ritual bath with salts and incense for purification or going on a nature walk to see what signs of the coming Spring you can spy! It could be a simple meditation or prayer of thanks, a goal planning session, wish-making or offering of dedications. Alternatively, you might choose to decorate your home and/or fireplace with a few white and green candles, snowdrops, daffodils or crocuses.

Whilst Winter is not yet fully behind us, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and for me this is what Imbolc is really all about – hope that warmer, brighter days are coming soon after the cold, dark harshness of Winter. Indeed, as John Steinbeck famously said:

What good is the warmth of Summer, without the cold of Winter to give it sweetness”.

John Steinbeck

You may already have very own way of marking this “pre-Spring” occasion and if so I’d love to hear how in the comments below.

If you’d like to know more about traditional Celtic celebrations and how to get more in touch with nature and ways to celebrate it throughout the year, take a look at some of our other articles by clicking on the following links:

https://myholisticliving.co.uk/2019/09/21/merry-mabon/

https://myholisticliving.co.uk/2019/12/21/why-we-really-celebrate-christmas/

https://myholisticliving.co.uk/2019/11/02/happy-celtic-new-year/

Until the Wheel of the Year turns again…

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!

Happy Celtic New Year!

Samhain Celebrations

As I’ve dived deeper into the ancient history and culture of Great Britain these last 12 months or so, purely out of personal interest, I’ve been delighted to discover just how many of our “modern-day” celebrations and traditions are far more ancient than I initially thought.

Modern or Ancient Traditions?

I’ve known since I was a pretty young child that Christmas, for example, was in fact a Pagan holiday allegedly hijacked by the early Christian church as a way to cement the new religion of Christianity on the people but allowing them to celebrate in a way and at a time they were used to, albeit under a different name. Originally known here as Yule by the Celts and later as Saturnalia following the Roman invasion, many of the traditions of Christmas such as decorating homes with holly, mistletoe and even decorating a tree clearly pre-date Christ’s birth. Why at this time of the year? It coincided with the Winter Equinox, a time that marks when the shortest day/longest night of the year, and was really a celebration of light and dark, like so many ancient celebrations.

I remember learning at school that Halloween was really All Hallows’ Eve, as 1 November was All Saints’ Day, being a day to remember Christian saints and martyrs. In fact, from what I’ve read since, Pope Boniface IV only created this celebration in the year 609 and purposely chose the date to coincide with the date Samhain was celebrated, again to replace the Pagan holiday.

More recently, as I started researching Samhain and how it used to be celebrated by the Celts, I was interested to note that bonfires would be lit. This raised the obvious question to me – is our modern day celebration of Bonfire Night here in the UK somehow linked to Samhain rather than Guy Fawkes? I can’t blame the Christian church for this (who I have nothing against by the way!) – whilst at the time there was a war waging between Protestants and Catholics and had been since the time of the Restoration, I think this was more a case of old habits of the people die hard, and celebrating Bonfire Night kept the old tradition alive, just for different reasons. It was a good way for those who still followed the old faith to practice the traditions of the ancient religion without arousing suspicion from those who would otherwise have called them witches and heretics. Confessing to being either Catholic or Pagan back then would likely lead to the same outcome – execution – frequently by burning!

Traditional Samhain Celebrations

Samhain was a 3-day festival honoured by the ancient Celtic pagans here in the UK during the time of the Iron Age, which means “summer’s end”, thus ushering in the Celtic new year. Some of the key themes believed to have been part of Samhain include:

  • Cycle of death and rebirth celebrated as the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter;
  • Final preparations for winter e.g. crops, animal sacrifices;
  • Bonfires/fire festivals to mark the autumn equinox and the start of the dark half of the year;
  • Visibility of the gods by humans, the occult and spirits from the Otherworld;
  • Offerings left for visiting spirits;
  • Playing of pranks and tricks;
  • Fortune-telling for the year to come;
  • Dressing up/costume wearing.

Do any of these look familiar?

When I was little, we were not allowed to go trick or treating as my mother classed it as “begging” and believed also that it was unsafe. We did go to family Halloween parties, bobbing for apples, dressing up usually in a black bin bag with witch face paint on and, with my mum’s birthday being on Bonfire Night, we usually celebrated that too by having a bonfire in the back garden and watching everyone else’s fireworks (being not very well off ourselves!).

Some people say that Halloween has become too “Americanised” but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. For our honeymoon, my husband and our kids went to Florida in October/November and if there’s one thing Americans do fantastically well in my view, it’s got to be Halloween!! Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights are fantastic and Disney’s Not So Scary Halloween equally fun for little ones. In the UK, Alton Towers and a lot of farms put on some great events too with Halloween being more popular than ever these days. What a wonderful way to keep the old beliefs and traditions of our ancestors alive and kicking for future generations!

I personally feel like I’ve really connected with the Samhain celebration this year. I love that traditionally it was a way to remember those who have gone on to the spirit world and I’ve now discovered that Bonfire Night may be linked to the festival too. My mum died at only 53 a few years ago and with Bonfire Night being her birthday, it has given a special day even more meaning for me.

The kids, me and the dog all went trick or treating and I was blown away by some of the effort people went to this year – fantastic and all in the name of good fun.

Now I’m off to put the pumpkins to good use and make a warming pumpkin soup for supper – yum!