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Celtic Christmas traditions

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Since its early beginnings the Celtic Christian Church drew inspiration on the pagan traditions of the past. Many of our present day customs have their roots in the druidic or Wiccan rites of long ago.

The winter solace starts on the 21st of December and is the shortest day in the year. Pagans believed in holding a festival of the sun to encourage its return and bring good fortune and bountiful crop with it. Accompanying this were a number of practices still very much in evidence today over the festive season.

1. The Yule log that we all have on our mantelpiece is reminiscent of the time when an oak log was burnt for twelve hours using the remnants of the previous years to light it. Once it had been burnt the log was decorated and kept throughout the year and its ashes were spread on the fields to encourage a good harvest.

2. Decorating your house with holly and ivy is very much a druidic tradition. They believed that these evergreens along with their blood red berries were a sign of fertility and rebirth. It was placed around doors and windows, so as to capture evil spirits before they entered the house in its spiky leaves. Echoes of this are in today's practice of placing holly wreaths on front doors.

3. The same is true of mistletoe which grows in the boughs of the oak tree. Druids would cut it down with a golden sickle making sure that it did not touch the ground. Meeting beneath a sprig of mistletoe was considered fortunate and a sign of goodwill; hence nowadays at Christmas we suspend it above doorways and exchange kisses if we meet beneath it.

4. Advent wreaths again have their roots in Celtic traditions. The countdown to the celebrations was marked with an evergreen holly wreath or a Celtic rope knot to hold four or five candles. One was lit each week in the lead up to Christmas. Traditionally there were 24 candles, the last of which was lit on the winter solace, bringing most light at the time when the world outside is at its darkest.

5. Place a lit candle in your window to welcome Mary and Joseph should they be passing.

6. Catching the Wren, traditionally an Irish feast celebrated on St Stephen's Day, December 26th, where participants would try to catch a wren, bringing them good luck. Now it is considered more as a time for going door to door, carol singing and passing around the hat.

7. Hogmanay, the Scottish four day festival of the New Year, is when the streets come alive with singing, dancing and partying. These include eating of haggis, a mince, potato and onion based filling put into a sheep stomach.

8. January 6th is the day to celebrate Little Christmas. Here traditionally women have the day off housework and the Christmas decorations are taken down. It is considered bad luck to take them down before or leave them up after this date.

9. The Celtic knot is a prime example symbolizing the life force, as in its never ending circle it weaves its path. These can be used in a variety of decorative ways, as place settings, Christmas cards or wreaths for your front door.

10. Christmas cake, Christmas pudding/ Plum Pudding or Figgy Pudding contain a rich mix of dried fruit, nuts and brandy. You start making them at the end of harvest and leave them to mature in time for Christmas. A cake of plenty made in the deep midst of winter.

11. In Scotland they have the tradition of First Footing, where at the stroke of midnight neighbors visit each other with a small gift, fruit cake or shortbread in return for a wee dram of whiskey. In other parts it is lucky for the first person to enter the house on New Years Day to bring a piece of coal as good luck for the coming year. Tall dark handsome men are thought to be the luckiest, while red headed women are sadly the least lucky ones to have knock on your door.

The Christmas greetings you will hear throughout both Wales and Ireland in the traditional Celtic languages are in Welsh "Nadolig Llawn" and in Gaelic "Nollaig Shona duit". However you choose to say it, have a Happy Christmas.

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