Ancient Irish Yuletide Traditions, Part 1
It’s dark at 4 pm, it’s cold, and this year we’re home in that early, freezing dark all the time…that’s right, I’m talking about winter. It’s no surprise that winter celebrations have been a long-standing practice all across Europe, with ancient Ireland being no exception. In fact, many of our Christmas traditions (just like Halloween—learn more here) are rooted in Irish Pagan traditions. They just called it “Mean Geimhreadh” (Midwinter in Gaelic) or “Alban Arthan” (Yule) instead, and there’s evidence to suggest the Irish have been celebrating it for at least 5,000 years.
But how do we know the ancient Irish celebrated midwinter? Their tombs, of course! The word Yule is posited to have come from an ancient word for wheel (“thoul,”) denoting the Druidic practice of celebrating the cyclical nature of the seasons (the wheel turning is why the days get shorter, of course,) as well as their worship of the sun (the wheel itself.) For an agrarian society like Ireland, the sun was the ruling factor of their lives—they would live or die by its light. Thus, there are several ancient tombs and monuments across Ireland that are placed to be alighted by the sun on the winter solstice, December 21st.
The “Síd in Broga” cairn at Newgrange in County Meath—where the ancient Irish buried their dead royals—is the most common example of a solstice tomb, as modern Pagans and history buffs still go to celebrate Yule there to this day (there’s so much interest there’s a lottery for tickets—like Hamilton! If you win a lucky ticket it’s recommended to dress warmly in reds and yellows to honor the sun and bring along a drum or rattle.) Solstice originally meant “standstill,” and for 17 full minutes on the solstice, the sun seems to linger over Newgrange as if (if you’re going by ancient beliefs) the sun is returning to breathe life into the land again. As the midwinter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, they were, for all intents and purposes, right!
But don’t think the Yule celebrations in ancient Ireland only lasted for 17 minutes…instead, there were 12 full days of fires and feasts. These celebrations often ran all through the night to stave off the cold and darkness, as the celebrants toasted the arrival of longer days and more sunlight and ate through fresh stores (and their remaining livestock) that otherwise wouldn’t last the winter. Just like now, there was at least a month of preparation and a number of traditions that overlap our modern ones…tune in next week to hear about a few more!
To the more devout, a 12-day celebration might ring a bell: as a way of easing conversion to Christianity. By the 8th century the Catholic Church had co-opted this Pagan celebration into the “Mass of Christ” which eventually morphed into Christmas. No one has ever been certain what time of year Jesus Christ was born, so it was easier for the missionaries in Pagan Ireland (and many other countries with similar midwinter festivals--including ancient Rome) to stick with what the people already knew. It was as simple for the Church of Rome to switch the worship of the “sun” for the worship of the “son”—even more so because of their similar metaphoric significance, as both are believed to come to earth to banish darkness.
If you’ve ever wondered about why a song writer decided on the “12 Days of Christmas,” you finally have your answer: the Celtic Pagans being slowly converted to Christianity. The holiday began on “Nollag Mór” (Big Christmas: December 25th) and lasted until “Nollag Beag” (Little Christmas: January 6th) with a New Year celebration in the middle. While the ancient Irish had their own fun with bonfires and storytelling, these newer Christmas celebrations were essentially long bank holidays with the only people allowed to work being those who baked, brewed, or danced—generally anyone who contributed to the merrymaking. The Germanic tradition of “carolling” become so popular that it’s even considered one of the ways Irish dance has been preserved in often turbulent times—after a while, no one wanted to touch anyone’s midwinter celebrations!
But this is only the beginning! Tune in next week for more Irish Yule traditions.
This post is part of a series. Learn more about Irish history here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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