Grianstad an Gheimhridh
The Winter Solstice is the time of year when we experience our shortest day and longest night - the sun is at its lowest point in the sky at noon and midnight is the darkest point of the year. It is known as Yule in many parts of Europe, this derives from the Norse word , referring to the Winter Solstice festival. Ancient people celebrated the rebirth of the Sun God and the days becoming longer and lighter.
In Ireland the ancient traditions of the land at the Winter Solstice had been celebrated here since Neolithic times. Ancient farmers had to have knowledge of the changing seasons and the turning of the year.
Bru na Boinne in Co. Meath is the sacred mid-winter site. The sun rises on the five mid-winter days and shines, in turn, into each of the mounds at different times during the day; starting with the main mound at Newgrange where the first light strikes the stone with five spirals at the end of the passage, and ends at Dowth, ‘Darkness’, as the last rays fade at sunset. It is a very ancient and powerful ritual of Sun worship
In the ancient tradition the Goddess Tailltiu, as Mother, gave birth to Lugh, the Sun God, at the Winter Solstice. At this time our ancestors celebrated the expulsion of evil winter spirits. It was considered a mysterious and powerful time, for it is at this point the sun begins to make the return journey across our skies.
After the longest night of the year the sun is seen as growing stronger and the return of the warmer season is anticipated, the concept of rebirth became strongly associated with the Winter Solstice.
For five days around the Solstice our ancestors celebrated the return of light and the sun growing in strength. The well-known figure of Father Christmas may have derived from this Sun God worship including Lugh, the ancient Irish Sun God, who travels across the sky at this time.
The Solstice was celebrated with bonfires to stimulate the ascent of the sun, and lamps or candles illuminating houses decorated with evergreens to simulate summer. It is a time to look on the past year's achievements. The days will now grow longer up to the summer solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and promise of a spring and summer by the returning sun. A Yule or Juul Log was brought into the house and burned on the hearth in honour of the Scandinavian God Thor. In Scandinavia a piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.
Traditionally in England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either used on the fields as fertilizer, being scattered every night until Twelfth Night, or kept as a charm and or to use in medicine. In France, people believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning. The Yule Log came to Ireland with the Vikings and has been taken up as the Bogdeal, the "bloc na Greihbain”.
The pine tree is related to this Solstice as it is with mid-summer. Its bright light and invigorating scent when burned were thought to have a purifying effect and protect against evil spirits when used on ceremonial bonfires. It is connected to birth and brightness, perhaps because of its evergreen properties and resinous burning abilities. Its thinner branches can be used a torches and give a bright clear light. Bog pine is especially prized for the Bloc Nollaig or Yule log.
During medieval times, the decorated log was ceremoniously carried into the home on Christmas Eve in a remembrance of the pine logs used in the sacred fires, and placed in the fireplace. Traditionally this was lit with the saved stump of last year's log, and then it was burnt over the twelve days of the winter celebration, and its ashes and stump were kept until the following year to sprinkle on the new log, so that the fortune would be passed on from year to year.
In France and Germany ashes from the Yule log were mixed with the cattle feed to ensure their health and in other regions the ash was sprinkled around fruit trees to increase their yield of fruit.
Another Solstice tradition among the druids was the cutting of the mistletoe.
Druids considered the mistletoe‘s poisonous pearly white berries to be drops of the Oak God's semen, much as the red holly berries were drops of the life-giving lunar blood of the Goddess Hel (Holle). Thus the mistletoe acquired fertility significance. Druids 'castrated' the old oak god by cutting the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and catching it in a white cloth before it could touch the ground, thus letting the new young king take the throne.
An Cailleach Bheur, The Winter Hag, is also a symbol of this season. The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of Winter: she herds deer, she fights off Spring, and her staff freezes the ground.
Together with the goddess Brìgid, the Cailleach is seen as a deity ruling the winter months between Samhainn (1 November or first day of winter) and Bealltainn (1 May or first day of summer), while Brìgid rules the summer months between Bealltainn and Samhainn. Some have the Cailleach and Brìgid as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Bealltainn and reverting to her own form on Samhainn in time to rule over the winter months. Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (1February) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (25 March or Lady Day), or Bealltainn (1 May) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìgid. Là Fhèill Brìghde is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter.
Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on 1 February is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if Là Fhèill Brìghde is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Brigid's Day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.
In Scotland, the Cailleachan (lit. 'old women') are also known as The Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A' Chailleach.
21st December-24th December
1. Children survey the countryside for holly, ivy, bay and other evergreens for cutting. Holly with berries is especially prized.
2. Winter Solstice wreaths were traditionally made of evergreens and holly and ivy. Holly represents the female and ivy the male and the wreath's circle symbolizes the wheel of the year. Both holly and ivy were used as protection in the home against bad spirits
3. Obtain a special log of wood for the festive fire - Bogdeal, the "bloc na Greihbain”.
4. Before the festival clean house and farmyard thoroughly. Clean outbuildings and yard entrances, passageways and surroundings. White-wash all buildings inside and out. Sweep, wash and clean the house. Do major laundering- include everything. Clean tables and chairs. Clean pots and pans.
5. Make or buy Poítin. Make sure you have at least a quart available.
6. Lay in a good supply of fuel for heating.
7. Clean the Chimney using a prickly bush pulled up and down, do not use holly for this, that would be an insult to the Spirits who inhabit it.
8. Cut coloured paper scraps into adornments, such as sun, moon and stars, or use needle and thread to stitch loose pieces of holly onto linen in patterns or seasonal mottoes.
9. Where mistletoe is found you can decorate with it, hang it in a place where people pass, traditionally the girl kissed under it receives a gift from the boy.
10. Leave a bowl of water out to be blessed by those travelling on such a night, this water will be used for cures.
11. Decorate byre and stable with evergreens and provide a special lantern there.
12. Place a small wreath of holly, yew or other evergreens on family graves especially on the grave of one who has died during the year.
13. Children tie sprigs of holly on cow's horns.
14. Remind children that a faerie stands on every spike of holly leaf this night and all nights.
15. Make Ivy garlands. Whiten ivy berries with whiting or starch.
16. Light the large candle with prayers and incantations for a peaceful winter and a plentiful summer.
Compiled by B D'Alton