By John Scally
The early Celts did not celebrate Christmas because they did not know about it. However, in the darkest days of winter, the Celts felt the need to party and bring joy to the Celtic world.
The Winter Solstice is, with the Summer Solstice, the oldest seasonal festival known to humanity. The Celts did not take the return of the sun for granted, especially as they were much more at the mercy of the severe winter weather than we are today.
For farming folk whose survival depended mostly on crops, the return of the sun was literally a matter of life or death.
Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) is a mighty Neolithic passage tomb and temple structure in the valley of the Boyne River. Its age is estimated at 5,200 years, give or take, making Newgrange older than the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge.
Newgrange is aligned towards the sunrise of the winter solstice. When the sun reaches a certain angle, the light shines through a special window along a passage, and at the end of the passage, falls onto a big stone, which bears the carving of a three-fold spiral.
The event lasts approximately fifteen minutes, during which the light is wandering across the floor of the passage and the stone at its end.
This has been interpreted as the insertion of a ray of light by the sun God into the womb of Mother Earth, to bring about the creation of new life in spring.
On the morning of the winter solstice, the Celts woke early, long before the first faint vestiges of light illuminated the specklings of frost on the hard ground.
Sometimes, as they pulled back the curtains, they were compelled to watch the world take shape despite their haste.
The faint horizontal threads of clouds grew a fiercer red against the still grey sky, the streaks intensifying to scarlet and to orange and to gold, until the whole sky was a breathtaking symphony of colour. The stars were like holes in the celestial carpet which allowed the eternal light to shine through.
A hoar frost lay on the fields, and hedgerows were hung with the lace trimmings of what seemed to be a thousand spiders’ webs.
In the distance, cattle were huddling under creeping hedges, staring vacantly up at the emerging slate grey sky with their stoic eyes, as they contemplated their own dinner.
The trees seemed to be standing and shivering together, hugging bare limbs and grumbling about the cold. On this day more than any other, they marvelled at the hand of the gods in the countryside.
What were the celebrations of the winter solstice in pre-Christian times have today metamorphosed into Christmas. There was no need for a giant leap to facilitate this takeover.
In the Christian mythology, Jesus Christ is ‘The Light of the World’ and it is no accident that today we celebrate the birth of Jesus at the time of the winter solstice.
Initially, the birth of Christ was probably celebrated in spring, but later moved close to the winter solstice, partly because the early church was unable to stop the winter solstice celebrations. Christianity wanted to superimpose its own faith message onto the celebration.
There also seemed to be a natural synergy and symbolism with fitting the birth of the light into the days of greatest darkness.
In the Celtic tradition, homes were decorated with evergreen branches. The green served as a reminder of the promise that nature will be green again in springtime and life will return to the farms.
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. Another seasonal prop to reinforce the theme of light breaking through the darkness is the generous use of candles.
Christians continue in the Irish tradition of monastic hospitality where the marginalised were welcomed. Hospitality was often very much in the tradition of the story of the widow’s mite. Although they had very little to offer, they gave generously, sharing the view of St. Francis of Assisi – it is in giving that we receive.
The tradition of the ‘Ireland of the Welcomes’ can be traced back to pre-Christian times. Under the Brehon laws, to refuse hospitality was not simply impolite; it was considered an offence. The arrival of Christianity gave a new impetus to this tradition.
In the Judgement Gospel (Matthew 25), hospitality is seen as an integral part of Christian life: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Hospitality was actually institutionalised in the Irish monasteries, with each having its own Teach Aiochta (House of Hospitality).
The monks supplied food, drink and overnight accommodation to all passers-by without seeking any financial donation. In the Celtic tradition, the guest is always Christ and hospitality is offered to the Christ in the other.
St. Brendan was one person particularly associated with hospitality. He was born in 483 or 484 A.D. He was fostered by the famous St. Ita, who had a special gift with children from the age of two until five, in Killkeedy near Newcastle West in County Limerick.
She was known as ‘the foster mother of the saints of Ireland’. Brendan is reported to have asked her for three things that God especially loved. She replied, “God loves a true faith in Him with a pure heart, a simple life with a religious spirit, and open-handedness inspired by charity.”
In the Celtic tradition, the guest was always Christ and hospitality was offered to the Christ in the other. One story that illustrates this is told about St. Crónán.
He had an unexpected visit from a neighbouring abbot and a big number of his monks. While they were eating at table, a young novice caused a bit of a stir by saying aloud, “It seems there will be no vespers said here this evening.” After a short, awkward silence, St. Crónán responded, “Brother, in the guest is received Christ.
Therefore, at the coming of Christ, we ought to feast and rejoice. But if you had not said that, the angels of God themselves would have prayed on our behalf here this night.”
Christianity today continues to draw heavily on the Celtic battle between darkness and light.
Christmas is a time for what T.S. Eliot calls “moments in and out of time”. Patrick Kavanagh describes the frost on Christmas morning in the Monaghan of his childhood: “And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.”
The Jesus of history is born in a stable, so it is appropriate that for Kavanagh, “Christ comes in a January flower”. For the Celts, this was a time of threshold, an in-between place.
It is an invitation to enter, to start again, to reflect on which way to go. Christmas is a threshold to merrymaking but also to an awareness that life is a continuous cycle of birth and death to rebirth, for the Celts understood that we are all part of a web of life.