Say what you will about 2020--but it has been astronomically interesting.
I do, of course, mean that literally. From the NEOWISE comet attracting global attention this summer, to the Great Conjunction--the closest Jupiter and Saturn have appeared in the sky since 1623 AD--occurring on the winter solstice, the skies have been a good place to turn when the ground seems a bit too chaotic for anyone’s liking.
In fact, since the solstice is upon us now, I thought it would be a good time to talk about some wonderful Celtic winter rituals which would have been celebrated at this time of year millennia ago, and which have touched even our own modern traditions.
In Newgrange, Ireland, a five thousand and two hundred-year-old passage is currently experiencing a flow of sunlight. This sunlight began trickling in at daybreak, a mere sliver, but when the sun reaches its peak at around nine am, for seventeen whole minutes, the entire chamber of the ancient tomb-temple is flooded with illumination. There are many theories of why the Newgrange mound--and many other mounds and henges around the British Isles--may have been built this way, but all of them resonate with one fundamental reason: the year has now begun to lengthen again, and the sun has begun its return.
For a people reliant on the mercy of the seasons, the shortest day of the year held special significance. Celtic priests--druids--officiated several important rituals. Many of them are very familiar.
Mistletoe would be cut from oak trees, mistletoe whose fruit represented life. A fire would be started from the ashes of the previous year’s wood, and for twelve days, this Yule log burned to banish evil and darkness. Holly and ivy warded off dangerous spirits. Even the Christian practice of decorating a Christmas tree with colorful baubles originated from the Celtic tradition of hanging trees with ornaments representing celestial bodies, and offering sacrifices--gifts hung from the trees branches--to various gods and goddesses.
The ancient Celts had a rich culture, pervasive enough to survive waves of other peoples settling their land. Strong enough that it’s shaped western cultures even today, complex and fascinating and, overall, I would argue, breathtakingly beautiful.
So happy Yule, everybody. I hope you have a wonderful solstice.
E.G. RADCLIFF IS A PART-TIME pooka and native of the Unseelie Court. She collects acorns, glass beads, and pretty rocks, and the crows outside her house know her as She Who Has Bread. Her fantasy novels are crafted in the dead of night after offering sacrifices of almonds and red wine to the writing-block deities.
You can reach her by scrying bowl, carrier pigeon, or @egradcliff on social media.
Photo credit Stephen Tafra on Unsplash