The Irish who came to Lanark County brought their religious beliefs, some Protestant, but many were Roman Catholic, coming to the new world to escape the English oppression, so widespread at that time in Ireland.
Along with their reverence for God, and their deeply held religious beliefs, they also brought traditions known as ‘the old ways’, customs that had been practiced by the Celts for thousands of years, and passed down in their families.
Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st, and is the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
Oak King v.s. Holly King
According to Celtic legends, the solstice marks a great battle each year between the Oak King, who represented the light and summer, and the Holly King who represented the dark and winter. Each year on December 21st, the Oak King would finish victorious at the winter solstice, and daylight would slowly return to the island until it was time to do battle again on June 21st, at the summer solstice.
Dark vs Light
The winter solstice marked the battle between darkness and light, life and death, beginnings and endings. In some Celtic legends the seasonal darkness of the winter solstice was known as ‘the Dream-time’, when Nature invites us to dream, reflect, and feel peace in the darkness, and hope for the rebirth of the earth as the days grow longer. The Celts believed that all beginnings take place in the dark. Like the seeds sown in autumn, they germinate underground through winter before appearing as new green shoots in spring.
Evergreen, Yule Log,
Mistletoe, Red & Green
Many of our Christmas traditions, have Celtic origins. The Celts brought evergreen boughs inside their homes to remind themselves of life, in the cold dark winter. Springs of Holly and Ivy were brought inside to decorate the house in the darkest days, a symbol of hope, as these plants remained green throughout the darkness, just as the people would once again be bright and hopeful as the days grew longer.
Mistletoe was brought into the home as a symbol of fertility, and was brought as a gift to young couples in hopes that their union would be fruitful, and that the family would continue through the generations to come.
The old Celts decorated the evergreens with candles and reflective objects. This was their call to Nature to amplify and increase the natural energy and light of the living green boughs. These were the beginnings of what would become today’s reflective balls placed on the tree, along with tinsel and silver and gold decorations.
Today’s red and green decorations have their roots in Celtic traditions. The red of the holly berries symbolized the bright strength of blood and life, and the green was life everlasting.
The Longest Night
In ancient times the Celts sat outside on the longest night of the year, wrapped in blankets and animal skins, huddled around a bonfire, waiting for the light to appear. Old familiar stories were told, again and again, each year around the fire – some of bravery, and some told of traditions past down through the ages.
Many hours later, a glow was seen along the horizon, as the first shaft of light breaks through the dark – winter has broken, and the summer shall return.
Music begins, and old songs are sung, and the feast is prepared. Men go into the woods and bring back a large oak ‘Yule’ log, in honour of the Oak King, who is victorious, and will bring back the light and the summer to their lands.
Winter Solstice Today
Today, many Irish mark the Winter Solstice at Newgrange, a pre-historic monument in County Meath, Ireland, five miles west of Drogheda. It is a large tomb constructed c. 3200 B.C., and is older than Stonehenge.
Newgrange, photo: Irish Central
Once a year, as the sun rises at the Winter Solstice, it shines directly along the long passageway, and lights the inner chamber and the carvings inside, lasting approximately 17 minutes.
Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland
Triple spiral carving, illuminated once a year at Newgrange
A lottery is held each year to determine the sixty people who will be allowed to witness the phenomenon on the morning of the Winter Solstice from inside Newgrange. Winners are permitted to bring a single guest.
People gather outside Newgrange each year to witness the Winter Solstice sunrise
Winter Solstice 2021
Winter Solstice is on Tuesday, December 21, 2021 at 10:59 a.m., in Eastern Ontario.
Take a moment to pause and remember some of the Celtic traditions practiced by your fore-bearers.
For all those with Irish blood flowing through their veins the Winter Solstice marks the victory of light over darkness, and signals a new start, a fresh beginning, as our days grow longer, brighter, and warmer.