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Holiday Traditions

© Mara Freeman, 1999

Search for the roots of today's Christmas traditions and you will find your way back to the ancient Celtic festival of Alban Arthuan, held during the Winter Solstice on December 21.

  • One of the principle reasons for the rapid propagation of Christianity throughout Europe during the first millennium was the willingness of Christian leaders to incorporate the rituals, beliefs and customs of other religions. Few of the ancient displaced religions were more assimilated than the Druids, Wiccans and Pagans.
  • Alban Arthuan is one of the ancient Druidic fire festivals. Taking place on December 21st through 22nd, Alban Arthuan coincides with the Winter Solstice. Translated, it means "The Light of Arthur," in reference to the Arthurian legend that states King Arthur was born on the Winter Solstice.
  • Alban Arthuan is also known as Yule, derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Yula," or "Wheel of the Year" and marked the celebration of both the shortest day of the year and the re-birth of the sun. Alban Arthuan was also believed to be a time of increased fertility. Early Celtic calendars measured the months according to the moon's revolution of the earth.
  • The custom of burning the Yule Log, the Yule-associated tradition that is most familiar to people today, was performed to honour the Great Mother Goddess. The log would be lit on the eve of the solstice, using the remains of the log from the previous year, and would be burned for twelve hours for good luck.
  • Decorating the Yule tree was also originally a Pagan custom; brightly colored decorations would be hung on the tree, usually a pine, to symbolize the various stellar objects which were of significance to the Pagans - the sun, moon, and stars - and also to represent the souls of those who had died in the previous year. The modern practice of gift giving evolved from the Pagan tradition of hanging gifts on the Yule tree as offerings to the various Pagan Gods and Goddesses.
  • Some of the current traditions surrounding "Father Christmas" or Santa Claus can also be traced back to Celtic roots. His "elves" are the modernization of the "Nature folk" of the Pagan religions, and his reindeer are associated with the "Horned God" (one of the Pagan deities).
  • Although Christmas is a major holiday in Ireland, it is not widely celebrated in Scotland. Some historians have suggested that the reason Christmas is downplayed in Scotland is because of the influence of the Presbyterian Church or Kirk, which viewed Christmas as a "Papist", or Catholic event. As a result, Christmas in Scotland tends to be a somber event, in direct contrast to the next Celtic festival, Hogmany, held on January 1. Hogmany is generally considered to be the much more significant celebration and it is a tradition that is beginning to spread outside of Scotland's borders.
  • To the Druids, it was holly's evergreen nature that made it special. They believed that it remained green to help keep the earth beautiful when the deciduous trees (such as the oak, which they also held sacred) shed their leaves. It was also their custom to wear it in their hair when they ventured into the forests to watch the priests collecting mistletoe. The holly berries were thought to represent the sacred menstrual blood of their Goddess.
  • In addition to these uses, some ancient religions used holly for protection. They would decorate doors and windows with it in the hopes that it would capture any evil spirits before they could enter the house. In effect, it was used as flypaper for demons. 
  • So as you're hanging that holly wreath  on your door, or placing it around the house this Christmas, think a little about the roots of this tradition. In addition to honoring your Celtic heritage and making your home look nice, you may also be performing the invaluable service of providing shelter to tree fairies and protecting your home from malevolent spirits.
  • In the Celtic language, Mistletoe means "All Heal". The ancient Celts believed Mistletoe possessed miraculous healing powers and held the soul of the host tree. According to Francis X. Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs:

The Mistletoe was a sacred plant in the pagan religion of the Druids in Britain. It was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, giving fertility to humans and animals, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest 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 suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers. [p. 104]

  • In ancient times, the Druids held a special ceremony five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, in which they cut the boughs of the Mistletoe from the sacred Oak tree with a golden sickle. It was important that branches did not touch the ground and become contaminated. Then the priests divided up the boughs into sprigs and distributed them among the people who believed the Mistletoe protected them from storms and evil spirits.

Origins of Halloween:

  • For thousands of years people have been celebrating holidays and festivals to honor the dead and their ancestors. It is in this vein that I would like to address some of the Christian 'Halloween' myths and put forth some facts on the Pagan celebrations in the past and present.
  • The Roman Catholic Church attempted to Christianize the pagan festival of 'Samhain' (pronounced sow-in) by adopting November 1 as All-Saints Day or All-Hallows Day - a time to remember those that have passed away. All Saint's (Hallows) Day was first introduced in the 7th century, and was originally on May 13, and then apparently moved to February 21. It was changed to November 1 by Pope Gregory in 835. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the Church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, another day to honor the dead. The Celtic New Year and the Roman New Year were not the same. The Celtic New Year was indeed Nov. 1, but the Roman was on April 22.
  • Hallow' is an old word meaning holy, to treat as sacred; "e'en" is Scottish/Gaelic for evening. Thus we have 'holy evening or sacred evening'. The word 'Samhain' means summer-end; 'Samhuinn' or 'Samhain' means Hallow-tide.
  • The Druids were an 'oral' tradition; they didn't write down their teachings. Unfortunately, most of what is known of them from pre-Christian times was written by their mortal enemies: the Roman Empire. The ancient Celtic fire festival called 'Samhain' is the origin of modern Halloween. This festival was the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian times, marking the close of harvest and the initiation of the winter season. Samhain marks the pagan New Year's eve. It is a time spent celebrating death, fertility, and renewal. The autumn leaves, cornstalks, apples, and nuts which are so much a part of the Halloween season are reminders of the Druids' autumn festival in honor of the harvest.
  • There is no such deity as 'Samhain, Druid god of the dead'. The 'Great God Samhain' myth appears to have come from Col. Vallency's books in the 1770s before the reliable translations of the Celtic literary works and before the archaeological excavations. 'Samhain' is the name of the holiday. There is no evidence of any god or demon named 'Samhain', 'Samain', 'Sam Hane', or however you want to vary the spelling.
  • All Hallows Eve is the night to bring to life those who have passed. It is Samhain, All Soul's Day, the Day of the Dead, Halloween. It is the time to 'hallow', to venerate the dead and in so doing, acknowledge their energy which still flows through us. It is the time to be with our ancestors, when the earth hovers in the twilight of decay. The window to those who have already passed is open.
  • In Ireland, where Halloween began the first jack-o'-lanterns weren't made of pumpkins. They were made out of rutabagas, potatoes, turnips, or even beets. There is an old 18th century Irish 'legend' about a man named Stingy Jack who was too mean to get into heaven and had played too many tricks on the devil to go to hell. When he died, he had to walk the earth, carrying a lantern made out of a turnip with a burning coal inside. Stingy Jack became known as 'Jack of the Lantern', or 'Jack-o'-lantern.' From this legend came the Irish tradition of placing jack-o'-lanterns made of turnips and other vegetables in windows or by doors on Halloween. The jack-o'-lanterns are meant to scare away Stingy Jack and all the other spirits that are said to walk the earth on that night. It wasn't until the tradition was brought to the United States by Irish immigrants in the late 1800's that pumpkins (which were abundant) were used for jack-o'-lanterns.
  • Not everyone celebrates Halloween to honor their dead and ancestors. Halloween is seen as an 'American' holiday in modern France. Pronounced 'ah-lo-een' by the French, this holiday was virtually unknown there until about 1996.
  • Neither Witchcraft nor Wicca is synonymous with Satan or Devil worship. The very concept of a supreme evil spirit is alien to Witches; we do not worship any being known as "Satan" or "the Devil", as defined by the Christian tradition. We do not seek power through the suffering of others, nor accept that personal benefit can be derived only be denial to another. The notion that Witches worship Satan was produced by the Roman Catholic Church as they made their way across Europe, in an effort to suppress the native earth-based religions prevalent at the time.
  • Samhain marks one of the two great doorways of the Celtic year, for the Celts divided the year into two seasons: the light and the dark, at Beltane on May 1st and Samhain on November 1st. Some believe that Samhain was the more important festival, marking the beginning of a whole new cycle, just as the Celtic day began at night. For it was understood that in dark silence comes whisperings of new beginnings, the stirring of the seed below the ground. Whereas Beltane welcomes in the summer with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of this festival is November Eve, the night of October 31st, known today of course, as Halloween. 

  • Samhain (Scots Gaelic: Samhuinn) literally meanssummer's end.” In Scotland and Ireland, Halloween is known as Oíche Shamhna, while in Wales it is Nos Calan Gaeaf, the eve of the winter's calend, or first. With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints' Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead who had been canonized that year, so the night before became popularly known as Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. November 2nd became All Souls Day, when prayers were to be offered to the souls of all who the departed and those who were waiting in Purgatory for entry into Heaven. Throughout the centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a gallimaufry of celebrations from Oct 31st through November 5th, all of which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel in its mystery.

  • In the country year, Samhain marked the first day of winter, when the herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched ricks, tied down securely against storms. Those destined for the table were slaughtered, after being ritually devoted to the gods in pagan times. All the harvest must be gathered in -- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, and apples -- for come November, the faeries would blast every growing plant with their breath, blighting any nuts and berries remaining on the hedgerows. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high by the hearth. It was a joyous time of family reunion, when all members of the household worked together baking, salting meat, and making preserves for the winter feasts to come. The endless horizons of summer gave way to a warm, dim and often smoky room; the symphony of summer sounds was replaced by a counterpoint of voices, young and old, human and animal. 

  • In early Ireland, people gathered at the ritual centers of the tribes, for Samhain was the principal calendar feast of the year.   The greatest assembly was the 'Feast of Tara,' focusing on the royal seat of the High King as the heart of the sacred land, the point of conception for the new year. In every household throughout the country, hearth-fires were extinguished. All waited for the Druids to light the new fire of the year -- not at Tara, but at Tlachtga, a hill twelve miles to the north-west. It marked the burial-place of Tlachtga, daughter of the great druid Mogh Ruith, who may once have been a goddess in her own right in a former age. 

  • At all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods drew near to Earth at Samhain, so many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Personal prayers in the form of objects symbolizing the wishes of supplicants or ailments to be healed were cast into the fire,  and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great fire of Tara to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe, as at Beltane. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, people surely felt a sense of the kindling of new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come. 

  • The Samhain fires continued to blaze down the centuries.  In the 1860s the Halloween bonfires were still so popular in Scotland that one traveler reported seeing thirty fires lighting up the hillsides all on one night, each surrounded by rings of dancing figures, a practice which continued up to the first World War. Young people and servants lit brands from the fire and ran around the fields and hedges of house and farm, while community leaders surrounded parish boundaries with a magic circle of light. Afterwards, ashes from the fires were sprinkled over the fields to protect them during the winter months -- and of course, they also improved the soil. The bonfire provided an island of light within the oncoming tide of winter darkness, keeping away cold, discomfort, and evil spirits long before electricity illumined our nights. When the last flame sank down, it was time to run as fast as you could for home, raising the cry, “The black sow without a tail take the hindmost!”

  • Even today, bonfires light up the skies in many parts of the British Isles and Ireland at this season, although in many areas of Britain their significance has been co-opted by Guy Fawkes Day, which falls on November 5th, and commemorates an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in the 17th century. In one Devonshire village, the extraordinary sight of both men and women running through the streets with blazing tar barrels on their backs can still be seen! Whatever the reason, there will probably always be a human need to make fires against the winter’s dark.
  • Samhain was a significant time for divination, perhaps even more so than May or Midsummer’s Eve, because this was the chief of the three Spirit Nights. Divination customs and games frequently featured apples and nuts from the recent harvest, and candles played an important part in adding atmosphere to the mysteries. In Scotland, a child born at Samhain was said to be gifted with an dà shealladh, “The Two Sights” commonly known as “second sight,” or clairvoyance. 

  • Apple Magic
    At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grows an apple tree whose fruit has magical properties. Old sagas tell of heroes crossing the western sea to find this wondrous country, known in Ireland as Emhain Abhlach, (Evan Avlach) and in Britain, Avalon. At Samhain, the apple harvest is in, and old hearthside games, such as apple-bobbing, called apple-dookin’ in Scotland, reflect the journey across water to obtain the magic apple. 

  • The origin of Halloween lies in the ancient Celtic religious celebration of Samhain (summer's end). One of the two greatest Druidic festivals (Beltane is the other), Samhain marked the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half.
  • Samhain is the Celtic new year celebration. Beginning on the evening of October 31 (the Celts counted their days from sunset to sunset, just as the bible does), the festival would last three days (perhaps longer).
  • As with other holidays of the Celtic year, October 31 marked a mystical time when the usual barriers between our world and the Otherworld thinned and stretched allowing contact between human beings and the fairy folk and/or the spirits of the dead.
  • Many of the celebratory elements, such as playing pranks, originated in the notion that at this time the world was turned inside out prompting people to act with abandon against the usual social strictures.
  • Fire is a central element in all the Druidic celebrations. All hearth fires were put out and new fires lit from the great bonfires. In Scotland, men lit torches in the bonfires and circled their homes and lands with them to obtain protection for the coming year.
  • Later, Christian elements came into play, as All Hallows' Day (all Saints' Day) and All Souls' Day contributed their own unique traditions to the core, such as trick or treating (collecting "soul cakes" on All Souls' Day) and dressing up in frightening costumes as protection against evil spirits.
  • At no time, either in the druid religion nor in the Christian, was Halloween connected with the devil or devil worship. Modern Satanists have appropriated a holiday that is not their own.
  • Once Halloween (name corrupted from All Hallows' Eve) came to America from Ireland and Scotland, other cultures have added their own elements to the modern American celebration - vampire lore, werewolves, etc.

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