The Winter Solstice, or Midwinter, is celebrated around the world by a variety of cultures. It marks the shortest day of the year (the longest night), and when the sun is at its lowest on the horizon. This usually occurs around December 21-22 in the Northern Hemisphere. From that point onwards, the days continue to grow longer until Midsummer in June. In Celtic countries, the Winter Solstice was seen as a time of rebirth and renewal, as signified by the return of the light.
The Celtic Midwinter is also known as Meán Geimhridh or Grianstad an Gheimhridh in Irish. Solstices and equinoxes were thought to be very important to the pre- and early-Celtic people, as seen through the construction of several tombs whose passages align with the solstice sun, such as Newgrange. These solstices were seen as occurring at the midpoint of each season, hence the name ‘Midwinter’ for the Winter Solstice.
In Druidic traditions, this day is known as Alban Arthan, which means ‘Light of Winter’ in Welsh. Some also call it Alban Arthuan, or ‘Light of Arthur’, which pays homage to the Welsh legends of King Arthur. Alban Arthan signifies the time when the archetypal Holly King (who rules from Midsummer to Midwinter) is defeated by the Oak King (who rules from Midwinter to Midsummer) in a great battle. The Holly King, also seen as a wren bird, signifies the old year and the shortened sun, while the Oak King, also seen as a robin, signifies the new year and growing sun. Mistletoe is also a symbol of the Winter Solstice, as it was thought that Druids revered the plant as ‘ever green’, which signified continued life over the cold dark winter. Since mistletoe is thought to be an aphrodisiac, this is where the holiday tradition of ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ could have originated.
In Ireland, Wales, and the Isle of Man, a festival called Lá an Dreoilín, or Wren Day, is celebrated on December 26. It involves boys dressed in masks or straw suits, called Wrenboys, parading around town accompanied by musicians. Originally they would hunt and kill a wren, in tribute to the light overcoming the dark, and carry the bird from house to house, stopping for food and good cheer. Thankfully this tradition now involves using a fake bird.
In Scotland, winter festivities are held on the eve of the New Year, when there is a great celebration called Hogmanay. It is thought that the Christian church was trying to suppress the pagan solstice celebrations in the 17th century, therefore the festivities moved to the coincide with the new year. The name Hogmanay could have derived from the Scottish Gaelic word for ‘Yule gifts’. Hogmanay customs include ‘first-footing’ (trying to get your foot first in a doorway of neighbours houses after midnight), ‘redding’ (spring cleaning), torchlight processions, fireball swinging, as well as giving gifts of coal, shortbread, whisky, or a black bun (fruit pudding).
© The Celtic Journey (2013)