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!

Drum Up The Sun

night sky looking towards Orion
night sky looking towards Orion (Photo credit: kronerda)

This time of year is a dark, quiet one. The sun rises late and sets early — and in some places, it hides its face from night and day alike.

We try to fill the void of the sun with colored lights and candles, festive trees and bright decorations. It’s a time of year when the night rules the calendar. The symbolism in the many holidays that cluster around midwinter is rife with images of renewal, rebirth, of beginnings. The New Year, Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hannukah — all these holidays are rooted in light, hope, and the start of something new even when they look toward the past.

Frankly, this winter has gotten off to an awful start for me. As of writing this, I have been sick for over three weeks. It started with a sore throat and stuffy nose and morphed into a racking cough, followed by earaches and a resurgence of symptoms. Pneumonia. Bronchitis. Sinusitis. Ear infections. I’ve had all of that since Thanksgiving.

It’s been a time where my husband and I had thought we were at financial rock bottom — only to find out that we had pickaxes in hand and were hacking away at the ground beneath our feet. I had to humble myself and ask for help. Publishing grinds to a halt, and my inbox has been a world of silence on my many queries.

And Sunday was the year anniversary of my cousin’s tragic death, the memory of which has fogged my emotions with the smoke of grief that still hasn’t faded. One of my closest childhood friends lost someone he loved on Sunday in an eerie parallel to what happened to my family one year ago.

Friday was a day none of us will easily forget. A day when we were reminded that no matter how much joy exists, there are people who cannot or will not drink from that cup and instead sow anguish and reap nothing but death.

The holidays will forever bear deep sorrow for Newtown, Connecticut and for the families who will spend these days crumpled by the agony of 26 small children and adults snuffed out from our world forever.

 

Bear with me. There’s a point buried under all these Job-like afflictions.

This is a dark time, both literally and figuratively.

But you know what they say about the darkest hour.

Three days from now will be the darkest day of the year. The sun will rise at 7:23 AM EST and set at 4:50 PM EST. It will be the longest night.

Five years ago, I had just returned from Poland. It was one of the darkest times in my memory. I had left a place I loved and come back to a city I didn’t want to call home. And on 22 December, I bundled up early in my warmest clothes and drove my sputtering, 15-year-old Nissan Sentra up to Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Winter at Red Rocks
Winter at Red Rocks (Photo credit: mattsantomarco)

I gathered there with about fifty other people. Most of them had drums. And as the sky began to pale with the shy blush of the returning sun, the drums began to thrum. They started slow and sleepy, dimmed to a muted hush.

As the sky grew brighter over the Denver skyline and the flatlands of eastern Colorado beyond, the beat turned to a pulse. The cloud-dotted expanse above turned from jewel blue to pastel to the crystal white of milky quartz. The first golden rays of the newborn sun reached shining fingers over the frozen foothills, and the pulse quickened in both drums and veins until hands beat drum-skin and knees alike, lit with the fire of the world of day given first breath.

English: Christmas Dawn The sun rises late in ...
English: Christmas Dawn The sun rises late in midwinter this far north. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A month ago when we discussed the topic for this round of posts, I knew I would write a solstice post. I didn’t know just how much life would emulate the darkening celestial events. For many people, this time of year means deep pain. Loneliness and sadness, loss and grief.

But beyond the bustle of holidays and buying gifts, beyond seasonal depression or tragedy, the sun will return.

Whether you believe in the birth of the Christ child to a virgin or the festival of lights or if you track the sun’s path as it falls through a cross-shaped constellation before rising anew — whoever you worship or not at all, the sun will return.

It will warm the planet and birth new life. It will brighten the skies and nourish our bodies. The sun will return.

The darkest hour…

Well. You know the rest.