The Celtic Roots of Christmas

A ruined battlement of Roslin Castle
A ruined battlement of Roslin Castle

Last year I spent the Christmas season in Roslin Castle, a partially ruined castle near the village of Roslin, in the Midlothian area of Scotland. Owned by the noble Sinclair family since the 1330s, Roslin Castle has been destroyed and rebuilt time and again, a stalwart structure standing tall against the tides of history and politics. And half a mile from the castle stands Rosslyn Chapel.

If you’ve ever read The DaVinci Code, you’ve heard of Rosslyn Chapel–the chapel features prominently in Brown’s version of the Holy Grail myth. Founded in 1446 and admired throughout Britain for the complexity of its architecture, the chapel has purported ties to both the Knights Templar and the Freemasons.

The intricate carvings throughout the chapel present a number of mysteries. For instance, amidst the traditional Christian iconography are several carvings of maize and aloe vera, although Columbus had not yet discovered the Americas at the time of the chapel’s construction. One particularly detailed column is said to have been carved by an apprentice mason after a vivid dream, but when his master saw the column he flew into a jealous rage and killed his apprentice on the spot. But perhaps most puzzling is the series of carvings of the pagan icon known as the Green Man, a bearded figure peering from foliage with vegetation coming out of his mouth.

Lady Chapel, inside Rosslyn
Lady Chapel, inside Rosslyn

Though I am not religious, I do love Christmas, so I was excited to attend the midnight Christmas service at Rosslyn Chapel. And while I listened to the familiar story of the birth of Christ, and sang the lovely traditional carols of the holiday season, I found my eyes returning again and again to the haunting faces of the Green Man, staring down at me from the ceiling. Why was this Celtic god of fertility featured so prominently in a Christian building? I wondered.

The truth is, many of the things I love about Christmas and the holiday season are rooted deeply in the Celtic tradition. When Christianity began to spread into Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the 5th century, many pagan traditions native to to the peoples of the land found their way into the discourse and traditions of the new religion. Scholars have even theorized that the date of Christ’s birth, December 25th, was moved to align with the winter solstice, a day of celebration for most pre-Christians.

Numerous Christmas rituals trace their origins back to the Celtic tradition. European Holly, used in many holiday wreaths and featured in several Christmas carols, was sacred to druids for its associations with the winter solstice. Mistletoe represented the divine male essence to pre-Christians–romance, fertility, and vitality. Hence, kissing underneath the mistletoe! Celtic pre-Christians were also known for decorating evergreen boughs with ornaments symbolizing the sun, moon, stars, and the souls of the recently departed.

The Green Man
The Green Man

But perhaps most interesting is the pagan myth of the Oak King and the Holly King. Born at Midwinter, the Oak King (frequently depicted as the Green Man!) grows in power, ushering in the seasons of light and growth until Midsummer. But the Oak King’s strength wanes as the light dims, and the Holly King matures, remaining green and bright even in the darkest days of winter. The Oak King, born at the Winter Solstice and bringer of the light, closely parallels the story of Jesus’s birth. And the Holly King, in his full power at Midwinter, is said by some to be an early precursor of Santa Claus, who was originally depicted in England and Ireland as wearing a dark green cloak.

In winter, pre-Christians celebrated the return of the light and the eternal cycle of nature. Christmas, symbolically, celebrates much the same thing. I think those talented masons at Rosslyn Chapel sought to celebrate the old traditions embedded in Christianity in the carvings of the Green Man. So hang your mistletoe, pin a star on your evergreen, and honor the birth of both the Christ child and the Oak King!

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5 thoughts on “The Celtic Roots of Christmas

  1. Shauna Granger

    Awesome post, Lyra! What an incredible place to get to visit! I too am not “religious” in the “new traditional” sense, but I love Christmas, especially as I got older and realized how pretty much all of the traditions were rooted in old Pagan and Celtic traditions, which I felt more at home with.

    1. Thanks, Shauna! It was a truly awe-inspiring place to visit. I also appreciate the symbolic synergy between pre-Christian religions and the holidays we as a culture celebrate, like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween!

  2. Pingback: St. Patrick’s Day Reads | Spellbound Scribes

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