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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Winter Solstice

    Although there is no solid evidence connecting Christmas in Ireland to older pagan practices, there are some hints of traditions which may pre-date Christian influence. As Estyn Evans tells us "Although Christmas is the outstanding Christian festival of the year its traditional 'Twelve Days' of holiday are steeped in pagan lore and in folk practices relating to the winter solstice..." (Estyn Evans, 1957, p 279). It is possible that the older solstice customs shifted to Christmas (O Suilleabhain, 1967).
  Preparations began before the holiday, with a thorough cleaning of the home and the gathering of appropriate decorations (Danaher, 1972). As with many other cultures these decorations would include boughs of evergreens, brought into the home. Holly, ivy, Bay, and Laurel were common and usually collected by the children of the family (Danaher, 1972). The emphasis of this holiday was on immediate family but also had community aspects. The holiday itself was celebrated with public ritual - in this case Mass - and followed by public hurling matches and hunting but was otherwise enjoyed quietly at home (Danaher, 1972).
   Gift giving was an extensive practice, virtually a social obligation. Shopkeepers gave gifts to customers, the well-off gave to the less fortunate, and friends and family gifted each other; these gifts could include firewood, food, special seasonal treats, and clothes (Danaher, 1972). In this way gift giving both reinforced social bonds and also acted as charity to support the lower levels of society.
   This time of year, like Samhain, is a time to remember and honor the dead (O Suilleabhain, 1967). One overtly Christian practice which might have older pagan roots, and could in any event be adapted for pagan use, relates to welcoming the traveling holy family on the eve of the holiday. Three plates are left out on the table and a bowl of water is left on the windowsill to be blessed by the spirits during the night; this water is then thought to have healing properties (Danaher, 1972). This folk practice in other parts of Ireland is done to welcome in the spirits of deceased family members seeking to return for the holiday (Danaher, 1972). The custom itself might be of an older, pagan nature which originally related to the dead and was later shifted to the Christian holy family. This can also be seen in the practice of lighting a candle at this time for a family member who has died in the past year, and decorating the graves of family members with holly or yew (Danaher, 1972).
    One similar traditional practice is the lighting of a large white candle in the kitchen window the night before the holiday (O Suilleabhain, 1967). This candle was often lit by the youngest child in the family, and might be decorated with holly (Danaher, 1972). The candle would be allowed to burn either all night or until midnight, and if it was put out or went out early it was thought to be a terrible omen, sometimes seen as foretelling a coming death in the family (Danaher, 1972). It was also thought to be lucky to eat breakfast by candle light (Wilde, 1991).
   There are some indications that it was a tradition in pagan times to slaughter a bull at this time, which later became a Christmas celebration practice (Wilde, 1991). This may perhaps be reflected in the fact that beef, roasted or boiled, was the most popular meal for the holiday (Danaher, 1972). Sweets, apples, and baked goods are also traditional foods. Generally speaking a large meal would be prepared including as much variety as the household could manage.
   There are several omens that might be taken on the day. To hear a cricket was a good omen, as was hearing a rooster crow at night (Danaher, 1972). Snow, frost, and cold weather were seen as good omens, signs of a pleasant spring to come (Danaher, 1972). The special candles lit were also used for divination, as previously mentioned.
   All of these represent Irish traditions which easily be done on the winter solstice for those who wish to celebrate it. The largest adaption required would be to substitute the morning Mass for an appropriate Irish pagan ritual on the morning of the solstice. This should be easily done, and could incorporate lighting candles on the eve of the solstice and waking up to watch the sun rise after the longest night.

Danaher, K., (1972) The Year in Ireland
O Suilleabhain, S., (1967) Nosanna agus Piseoga na nGael
Wilde, L. (1991) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstition

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