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CHRISTMAS AND THE CELTS
by Treasa

Hard to believe that Christmas is almost upon us. December 21st marks the winter solstice, for the Celts this meant the end of one half of the year.

According to the Coligny Calendar, a first-century bronze tablet found at Coligny—near Bourg-en-Bresse in France, the Celtic Druids divided each lunar month into two halves. One half of each month (the waxing moon) was considered propitious, the other (the waning moon) unpropitious. Some scholars think they may have thought of the year as being divided into two distinct halves in a similar fashion.

MIDWINTER FESTIVALS

The Celtic festival of the winter solstice subsequently became confused with two festivals, the Roman Feast of Saturnalia, and the Christian celebration of Christmas. The winter solstice marked the date of the southernmost rising and setting of the sun. The word "solstice" means "sun standing still." By our modern calendar that day, the day of the longest night, is usually December 21st.

The Roman festival dedicated to Saturn, the Saturnalia, began on December 19th. It celebrated the overthrow of the old father god, Saturn, by the new, Jupiter.. These two gods have direct counterparts in Greek Mythology—Croons and Zeus—and in Celtic Mythology—Bran and

Bel. The basic symbolism is ancient: the Moon, the mother of all creation is married to the Sun, the father, but the renewal and continuation of the marriage (life/the harvest, etc.) depends upon the aging god, Cronos, being replaced the the young god, Zeuss. Saturnalia was known to the Romans as Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, or The Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun.

Saturnalia was a fire festival, with homes being decorated with evergreens, and candles. The formal festivities lasted only seven days, but the whole month before was dedicated to Saturn. There would be lots of feasting, government offices and schools were closed, and Roman slavers were given special dispensation to perform light and urgent tasks only. Personal gifts were exchanged wrapped in colored cloth.

Anyone familiar with the traditional Christian Christmas festivities will recognize many similarities between the Roman and Christian celebrations. In fact, Christ’s birth date was deliberately set, during the third century AD to coincide and supersede the pagan festival dedicated to Saturn.

THE YULE LOG

The Yule Log tradition seems to have originated with the Celts. The Druids were preoccupied with trees. The Yule Log was directly associated with fire as the purifying emanation of the sun-god. To bring the Yule Log indoors was symbolically to bring the blessing the sun-god into the house. Even the collecting, hauling, and kindling of the wood was conducted with great ceremony.

There were a number of taboos revolving around the Yule Log. It had to burn steadily without being extinguished or bad luck would follow. It could be cut down on one’s own land, or accepted as a gift from a neighbor, or stolen from the forest, but it could not be bought or sold. The exchange of money would destroy the magical properties of the Yule Log. Wine, cider or ale was sprinkled over the log before it was lit. Part of the unconsumed log would be kept to light the new log the following year. It was decorated with evergreens. In Cornwall, England, the figure of a man was chalked on the log to be consumed by the fire.

THE YULE CANDLE

Usually blue, green or red in color, the Yule Candle was a very large ornamental candle which was lit at the beginning of the Christmas season and had its own set of taboos and customs. It could only be extinguished using a pair of tongs—blowing out the flame invited bad luck. The head of the household was the only one who could light or extinguish the flame. The unconsumed remnant of the candle was preserved as protection, to be lit during thunderstorms to prevent the house from being struck by lightening. Its tallow was rubbed on the sole of the plough before spring ploughing to bless and promote the seed. The lit candle was displayed in a window for the convenience of travelers. The Romans used oil in their manufactured lamps, but the Celts made candles, with wicks or reed in tallow made from beef lard and pig fat.

OTHER MIDWINTER TRADITIONS

It is likely that the midwinter celebrations of the Celts included ceremonial lights and candles, and we know from several ancient texts that bonfires were lit at the winter solstice just as they were for the midsummer.

The two plants still associated with the Yule, holly and ivy, were also associated with Saturnalia. Saturn’s club was made of the wood of the holly, and his sacred bird, the wren, nested in ivy. Both these plants are said to have a sacred significance for the druid.

But, the main Christmas celebration

As a child, I can remember a type of "Christmas Cake" we got in Ireland the thought of which

still can make my mount water. Washed down with lashings of hot tea, and followed by the telling of stories by the fire, and embellished with music and song, it helped to make the "longest night of the year" a little warmer and more comfortable. I have attached a copy of the recipe for your holiday cheer and I wish every one a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year!

Slainte’!!! (Gaelic for "your health")

PORTER CAKE

Porter is a type of dark Irish beer, not as widely available today as it once was. It is not as strong as stout but Guinness, Murphy’s or other Irish stout can be substituted for this recipe if mixed fifty-fifty with water. This cake is quickly and easily made and, though it tastes good fresh from the oven, it is best kept for about a week in an airtight tin.

1 cup porter 4 cups plain flour
1 cup butter tsp baking soda
1 cup brown sugar 1 tsp. mixed spice
6 cups mixed dried fruit Grated rind from one small lemon (optional)
(equal quantities currants, raisins, sultanas 3 medium eggs, with about half as much mixed peel)

Melt the butter and sugar in the porter in a saucepan. Add the fruit and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to go cold and add the sieved flour, baking soda, spices and lemon rind. Beat the eggs and mix them in with a wooden spoon. Pour into a greased and lined 9 inch cake tin and bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven at 325 oF for about 1 hours. To test the cake, push a skewer into the center. If ready, the skewed come out clean. Allow the cake to cool in its tin.

Treasa can be contacted directly by e-mail at: tarot1@cox.net
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