Many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere prior to Christianity celebrated the solstice. It was the most sacred time of the year for the celts. The solstice happens twice a year, when the sun appears at its highest or lowest point on the horizon. North of the equator, the winter solstice, grianstad an gheimhridh, occurs between December 20th and December 23rd.
Alban Arthuan, also known as Yule, was celebrated at the time of the winter solstice by the celts. Druid priests would harvest mistletoe from the giant oak trees in the forest for its magical and healing properties on the day of the solstice as they celebrated the rebirth of the sun.
The day after the solstice the sun moves higher in the sky, proof to the druids that it had been reborn. The celts believed that on the day of the solstice, the on-going struggle between the Oak King, the god of the waxing light or the Divine Child; and the Holly King, the god of the waning light or the Dark Lord; was decided.
Each year on the day of the winter solstice, the Oak King would be victorious in battle until his defeat by the Holly King at the summer solstice.
The winter solstice has been celebrated in Ireland for over 5,000 years. Síd in Broga Cairn at Newgrange, in the Boyne Valley in Co. Meath, is the most well known of the ancient celtic sacred sites in Ireland. The alignment of light in the tomb that happens at sunrise during the winter solstice has been interpreted as a “ray of light by the Sun god into the womb of Mother Earth” to bring about the creation of new life in the coming spring.
In Co. Cork, at Dromberg Stone Circle in the afternoon of the winter solstice, the stones line up with the sun. Nicknamed the Druid’s Altar, there are many legends of human and animal sacrifices occuring here. Co. Louth has the Baltray Standing Stones that line up with the rising sun.
Another passage tomb in Armagh at the top of the Hill of Slieve Gullion is illuminated by the setting solstice sun. That tomb was constructed 6,000 years ago. It is also called Calliagh Beara’s House.
The Hag of Beara
Cailleach Beara or the Hag of Beara, was a witch or the pagan goddess of winter. She was born on November 1st, during the Festival of Samhain (the origin of Halloween). The Cailleach grows younger and in power and beauty throughout the winter months, until the spring feast of Bealtaine, when she is at her peak of beauty and strength.
During the summer months, her power and beauty fade and she grows old. The celts believed she brought wintertime to regain her stronger self, making their own lives a struggle in the harsher weather.
The Origin of the Christmas Tree
Many of our Christmas traditions have come from the celts winter solstice celebrations. The Christmas tree has its origin in pre-Christian celebrations during Yule. An evergreen tree was brought indoors to symbolize life. It was adorned with ornaments representing the sun, moon and stars. The exchanging of gifts evolved from the celtic tradition of hanging gifts on the tree as offerings to pagan gods and godesses.
Holly leaves and branches were put around their homes and structures during the winter months to give shelter against the cold to the fairies that lived in the surrounding forest. They also believed that the holly would trap evil spirits before they could enter their dwellings.
The oak tree was very sacred in celtic life, and the parasitic plant that made its home in the branches of the oak was revered as well. Mistletoe was a healing plant, believed to hold the soul of the mighty oak tree. With the help of the oak, it possesed magical powers to heal, give fertlity to humans and animals, and to protect them from evil from spirits and witchcraft, assuring the community of good fortune in the coming year.
Our vocabulary and phrases this month will include some of the influences from the celts as well as more traditional Christmas phrases and words associated with this time of year.
Coileann (kwill-un) holly Crann cuillinn (krahn- kwill-un) holly tree
Drualas (dhroo-ah-lus) mistletoe Dair (dahr) oak
Crann darach (krahn dahr-ach) oak tree Crann ailme (krahn ahl-ih-mah) pine tree
Crann Nollaig (khran null-ug) Christmas tree Sa gheimhreadh (sa giv-rah) in winter
Réalta (rayl-tuh) star Grian (gree-un) sun
Éirí na grian (eye-ree nuh gree-un) sun rise Luí na grian (lee nuh gree-un) sun set
Grian na maighdean (gree-un nuh my-dunn) the fairest of maidens
An Mhaighdean Mhuire (ahn my-dunn woor-uh) The Virgin Mary
An Mhaighdean Bheannaithe (ahn my-dunn bahn-ih-heh) The Blessed Virgin
Gealach( gahl-ach) moon Oíche ghealaí (ee-huh yell-ee) moonlit night
Sneachta (shnak-ta) snow Fear sneachta (fihr shnak-ta) snowman
Sioc (shuk) frost Fuar (foo-ar) cold
Lá Nollaig (law null-ug) Christmas Day Óiche Nollaig (ee-ha null-ug) Christmas Eve
Lá na Bliana Úire (law na bleena oora) New years day
FRÁSA (frah-sa) PHRASE
Nollaig Shona Duit (null-ug hoe-na gwit) Merry Christmas to you (singular)
Nollaig Shona Daoibh (null-ug hoe-na yeev) Merry Christmas to y’all (plural)
Beannachtaí an tSéasúir (bahn -uhk-tee ahn tay-soor) Seasons Greetings
Nollaig faoi shéan agus faoi mhaise duit/daoibh (null-ug fwee hayn ah-gus fwee vuh-sha gwit/yeev)
Christmas happiness and goodness to you/y’all
Anthbhliain faoi mhaise duit/daoibh (ah-vleen fwee vuh-sha gwit/yeev)
A happy prosperous New Year to you/ y’all
Nollaig Shona Daoibh!
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Aisling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.