Solstice, Yule, Saturnalia and many more ancient festivals bring traditions to our modern Christmas time celebrations. feasting, family and friends, fire and fun.
Solstice is the shortest day of the year, when the earth is furthest away from the sun. Solstice means ‘sun-stop’, and for three days around the solstice the sun appears to rise and set at the same point. After the solstice, the days gradually begin to lengthen again as the sun moves slightly higher in the sky each day.
Symbolically, it is a time to let go of unwanted thoughts, habits or emotions, making way for new beginnings as we look forward to spring.
We can reflect on the insights and wisdom we have gained. In the dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed beneath the ground and we look forward to rebirth and the return of light as the days lengthen again.
We know that the Winter Solstice was an important time for the ancient people of Ireland because the passageway at Newgrange, a Neolithic passage tomb, is aligned to winter solstice sunrise, flooding the passage and inner tomb with light.
Solar alignments can be also found at Knowth and Dowth in Co. Meath and in Knockroe in Co. Kilkenny and many others including our local Drombeg stone circle in West Cork. There is also a solar alignment in Killadangan, 5km west of Westport, Co. Mayo.
Also associated with this time of year, Mistletoe was believed to have magical properties. Known as “Uile-íoc” or “All Heals”, druids believed Mistletoe was a powerful herb that heal diseases, make poisons harmless, give fertility to humans and animals, protect from witchcraft and evil spirits and bring good luck and blessings.
In fact, it was considered so sacred that if enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of hanging mistletoe over the doorway.
Yule probably came from Yul, a Norse word associated with Odin. One of the main features that remains is the Yule log. A log or a big piece of wood is burned in the central fireplace. According to tradition it must come from one’s own land or be a gift, and it must not be purchased. It is traditionally ignited with the remaining piece of last year’s Yule log.
The house is decorated with evergreen branches. The green reminds us of the promise that nature will be green again. In the Irish tradition, a house decorated with greeneries is expected to offer a place of rest to nature spirits fleeing from cold and darkness.
My personal favourite is the Chocolate Yule log which goes great with a glass or two of Wild Red Mead in front of the fire.