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© 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 means “summer'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!”
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.
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
- 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.