As we know that the Druid year began on Samhain, we know that they did not consider this the birth of the new season, as did many other Neolithic culture. But the traditions of Bardic revels and of feasting on the wild boar, the vigil of the Yule log, and the decorating of Yule trees very probably do come from the Druid past. So also may be the tradition of going from house to house, singing a ritual song particular to the holiday, i.e. caroling. But in Druid times this would have been something like the “Hogamany Carols” and the related rituals of circling or dancing around the house, beating on drums and bull hides. This tradition was preserved in the remote Highlands until the nineteenth century. The ritual use of the bull hide, also used with other Druid rites, links it to Druidic, especially the Druidic Filidh tradition, and not to the preceding Megalithic or pre-Indo-European ones.
Here is one such carol. Try marching around your house and singing it this Solstice, with or without bull hide.
Yule, Winter Solstice, mistletoe and white bulls, this is one of the four minor Druid High Days on the Coligny Calendar. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, gives us our first look at the use of mistletoe at this season of the year. “The time of the rite was the sixth day of the new moon, and preparations were made for a feast and the sacrifice of two white bulls. A Druid in a white robe climbed the tree and cut the branch of mistletoe with a golden sickle, the herb being caught as it fell on a white cloak spread below. The bulls were then sacrificed, and all present ate of them.” The gold of the sickle has been prolifically debated by scholars ever since. (The Gods find harmless for idle hands?) Real gold is too soft to hold a cutting edge and slice through the tough, woody stem of the mistletoe. Polished bronze is a more likely candidate, but the bronze may also have been gilded. Elsewhere Pliny writes of the necessity of gathering the mistletoe left-handed after first fasting (and purifying oneself.) He also writes of the Celts plucking Selago without use of iron knifes or tools, barefoot and with the right hand through the left sleeve of a white tunic, but these were private rites, not public ceremonies, The golden nature of the sickle may simply have referred to the taboo on the use of iron implements in gathering the sacred plant.
Whatever the metal was then R.D.N.A. Druids now use bronze sickles, cast for us years ago by a member who at that time had access to metal casting equipment as well as the necessary skill. Does anyone out there know how to cast bronze? Have the set up? For, alas, we have no more sickles for new Third Order (Ordained) Druids.
This feast should be celebrated with feasting among friends and relatives, all night bonefires to welcome back the Sun, and much singing and merriment, The exact time of the turning of the Sun God will be, according to my almanac, 1:15 P.M. on December 21, 1989. That’s a Thursday, a work day for most of us. If you can’t do anything else to celebrate it, surreptitiously light a match. Or, rank and job security permitting, you could jump up and shout “Saoul” (shaou-el,) that ought to wake the office up.
Yule Essay: Yule and Mistletoe
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 2000
By Stacey Weinberger
Yule, Winter Solstice, is one of the four minor Druid High Days. More so than any other of the High Days, Yule seems to be especially associated with plants and trees. In the dark days of Winter it is the evergreen that reminds us of the “continual flow and renewal of life.”
The Mistletoe is one of the few plants that naturally bears fruit this time of year. It is commonly found on such trees as the apple, ash, walnut, and hawthorn, and much less often on the oak. Though it manufacturers its own food through photosynthesis, it depends on its host tree for water and nutrients.
The Mistletoe was held sacred by the Druids. In Wales, it is still called druidh his, “Druid’s Weed.” The Roman author Pliny the Elder gives an account of the mistletoe gathering ceremony in his Natural History:
“The Druids held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. But they chose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it, in fact they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and is a proof that the tree was chosen by the god himself. The mistletoe, however, is found but rarely upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the moon. They chose this day because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable influence. They call the mistletoe by a name meaning, in their own language, the all-healing. Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by others in a white cloak. Then they kill the victims (i.e. the cattle,) praying that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fecundity to barren animals, and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”
Pliny doesn’t explain why the Druids held the mistletoe so highly other than the reference to it being all-healing. It is extremely poisonous. I overhead this past week while waiting for the train home that some florists, when it is sold yearly at Christmastime, have removed the berries because there have been cases of children picking them off the branches, eating them, and dying. (And where were the parents in this?) Mistletoe has been used (the leaves, not the berries) however, though greatly diluted, in modern times to much success in treating serious illnesses. A specially prepared homeopathic tincture is used in the treatment of cancer and herbalists use mistletoe to strengthen the heart and reduce blood pressure. So the Ancients did have it right after all, it just took us moderns a little while to uncover it, and as with any medicinal, probably used it with great wisdom, caution, and efficacy.
Poems of the Season
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 2000
From Our Server, Susan Press
Winter has come, The song has been sung, The days have been white and cold.
The dark has been deep, The earth was asleep, Dreaming a dream of old.
For the dark becomes light, And the earth will take flight, Greeting the Sun’s return.
Nights of Winter
In deep of winter, In the middle of the night, Jack Frost paints your windows with nary a light.
Look thru his icy artwork, Know each to be unique, You’ll see a starlit world revealed, A world that some would seek.
A world that is within, without, A fragile world of wonder and glitter A world that from his paintbrush flows, In the deep, dark nights of winter.
Walk Amongst the Trees
Murmuring softly, Father Winter walks amongst the trees, gently easing them into sweet white slumber. He stops to rest with those who keep vigil during the long winter, the Holly, the Mistletoe, and the Evergreen.
They are old, old friends and pass the long white winter sharing tales and talking of things they have seen and heard throughout their long lives.
Go walk amongst the trees. Be quiet and still, listen for their voices and then for their wisdom. Share with them your dreams, your wonders and your woes, for they will become the substance of tales told in the future...the knowledge and wisdom of the trees.
Yule Essay: Tree Lore
Druid Missal-Any, Yule 2001
By Stacey Weinberger
Yule, Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year, is one of the minor High Days of the Druid calendar. Though there is an association with trees at each of the High Days, none of them so strongly evokes the image of the tree than Yule with the tradition of Christmas or Yule tree, a latter-day symbol of pagan tree-worship. The Yule tree as we know it is a German custom brought to England in 1840 by Prince Albert, prince consort of Queen Victoria. Perhaps a parallel to the May-pole in the Summer half of the year (see A Druid-Missal-Any Beltaine 2001,) which also was a tree cut down for a particular celebration and placed as the center of ritual, the Yule tree harkens back to an older tradition and can perhaps be traced back to the ancient Druids and other pre-Christian Indo-European practices.
In southern Europe there was the midwinter custom pertaining to the celebration of the god Phrygian god Attis that is very reminiscent of cutting down the Yule tree and decorating its branches. Certain priests of the Attis called dendrophori, meaning “tree-bearers,” annually selected a pine tree (pinus silva) from the sacred grove to carry the effigy of the god into His Roman temple. The dendrophori were charged with the duty of setting up and decorating the tree upon which the god was presented for sacrifice. The pine tree stood for a promise of eternal life because being an evergreen it kept its vital appearance even in winter. The boughs did not wither and die, and signified the continuing presence of life.
In Celtic culture there is also archeological evidence of ritual involving trees. At two large sacred circular enclosures, the Goloring near Koblenz and the Goldberg in Southern Germany, that date from the sixth century B.C., a huge central post was erected, possibly imitative of a living tree. Similar pre-Roman ritual activity can be observed at the La Tene site of Bliesebruck where over one hundred sacred pits filled with votive objects had been planted with tree trunks or living trees. In the Rhineland, one of the four regions of the Celtic World, the great scanctuary at Pesch contained many temples and ancillary buildings grouped around a sacred tree.
There are legendary tales of royal halls with a living tree in the center of the building, and trees may have been used this way, as in the Old Manor House at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire and the hall of Huntingfield in Suffolk. Positioning the tree in the center of a building as a source of good luck and protection for gods and men is confirmed by the custom in Germany, continuing as late as the 19th century, of having a guardian or lucky tree beside a house. Does bringing the tree inside symbolize bringing the luck inside? Symbolic offerings were made to the tree, and ale poured over its roots at festivals, as in the case of a huge birch tree that stood on a mound beside a farm house in western Norway until it fell in 1874. Adam of Bremen, wrote of a huge tree that stood beside a temple in Uppsala, the holy center in Sweden, that remained green summer and winter (signaling perhaps an evergreen,) but no one knew what kind of tree it was. The existence of sacred trees in Germany in the pre-Christian era is borne out by reference to their destruction by early Christian missionaries such as St. Boniface.
Memories of sacred trees at holy places can consistently be found in Irish literature, where a number of sacred trees are mentioned. The sacred tree, in Old Irish bile, was apparently a usual feature of the site where the inauguration of the kings of each tribe or confederation took place, the sacred center of the tribal territory.
Sacred trees are found mentioned in pagan texts of early Ireland, most notably in the Rennes Dindshenchas (“History of Places.”) Holy trees were particularly associated with sacral kingship and the inauguration rites surrounding the election of a new king. Five special trees are mentioned in the Dindshenchas marking the sacred ritual and assembly centers of Ireland: “The Tree of Ross and the Tree of Mugna and the Ancient Tree of Datha and the branching Tree of Uisnech and the Ancient Tree of Tortu.”* Three of these trees are recorded as ash trees, while the Tree of Ross was a yew (an evergreen,) and the Tree of Mugna was an oak, although it was not an ordinary one as it bore three crops of different fruits each year: “apples, goodly, marvelous, and nuts round, blood-red, and acorns, brown and ridgy” (together which symbolize the fruits of the Otherworld.) It too appears to be an evergreen: “Its leaves were upon it always,” as with the tree at Uppsala described by Adam of Bremen.
A characteristic of the Otherworld tree in Irish tradition is that it bears blossoms and fruit of gold and silver, which the more modern Christmas tree is reminiscent of.
This Winter Solstice when you go out to purchase your Yule tree, preferably a live one, keep in mind that you are maintaining the pagan tradition of honoring the tree and making it the focus of the modern day tribal assembly of home. During this time when all seems dead and asleep the pine or fir Yule tree remains green, symbolizing the promise of life that is to return.
*”The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindshenchas,” ed. W. Stokes, Rev Celt 15 (1894) and 16 (1895)
Christmas Plants and
Picking the Yule Log
A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 2001
By Mairi Ceolbhinn, D.C. Grove
Druids love and respect their plants and truly wish them to return to full vitality in the spring. Without plants, how’d we do our sacrifices? What we’d eat? What’d we wear? It’s nice to know that in the depths of winter, when the days are shortest, that some plants are doing rather well. We wish to celebrate this with Christmas trees and such and bring their blessings into our homes. See also the site: http://www.circlesanctuary.org/pholidays/SolsticePlanningGuide.html
Mistletoe, as we all know, was considered sacred, by our ancient Siblings and has remained such throughout the years. Its Gaelic name still means “all healing,” although I’m not sure how to use it safely, since it is rather poisonous. Perhaps, it is by its poison, that it fends off winter's blight, and manages to bloom around the solstice? Its persistent fertility is therefore an established trait that gives us that great custom of "kissing under the sprig of mistletoe" which would happen in a night of partying and debauchery. That age-old theme of commemorating the death of the “old Sun” and birth of the “new Sun” is now popularly incorporated into the images of “Old Man Time and Baby New Year” doing a tag-team on January 1st every year.
Holly berries, like Mistletoe, bloom amidst the snow as if to defy winter and encourage the return to life. Its green boughs were of course common decorations on buildings, holy places and public buildings during the winter festival, and this tradition has fortunately continued to this very day. Even the Japanese, Mike Scharding says, have a “kadomatsu” placed in front of the door at New Year’s Eve.
Yule Log Tradition
Not to be morbid, but a sacrifice is necessary to rekindle the life of the dying sun (no, I’m not pro-Aztec, which sounds like a marketable drug,) and it seems the Yule Log has filled that role for several centuries. “Yule” comes from “hweol,” meaning “wheel,” which is a frequent European symbol for the Sun. So you’re basically giving the Sun a well-needed torching to warm it up.
According to various sources, it is widely agreed that the hearth of the Celtic House was the home of a protective spirit, and (for practical and symbolic reasons) the fire was rarely allowed to die out except once or twice a year during the big fire holidays. Special prayers were and are still spoken before leaving the banked fire of turf for the night in rural areas. Much magic also went on around the fire during cooking, story telling, and entertaining of guests. The hearth was basically the pre-modern “Home Entertainment Center.” If you’ve ever noticed, televisions also send comforting relaxing flickers of light into a darkened room while you stare blankly?
Now, back in those days, people had access to common forests surrounding their village. The choice of the wood varied greatly among locales, but one good size tree would provide several logs for a neighborhood. But under no circumstances, should you steal one from a neighbor’s private land (and no buying one at a parking lot, good religion is do-it-yourself.) I’ve not heard of any special methods of cutting a tree down, but a short ceremony, and posting a few days advance notice for malevolent or uninterested spirits to depart, would certainly be in order. (No, that Golden Sickle is no more effective that a haddock, get a good steel axe.) Angry spirits will make the tree conk you on the head; so be forewarned.
Once cut down, a goodly size log was the festooned and regally dragged back to town through the streets. As the Log entered the house, some cultures would give it a hearty drink of oil, salt and mulled wine, with a song perhaps. In more recent times, it was burned on Christmas Eve (which is close enough to the Solstice,) with music, activities and frolicking. To kindle the fire, splinters from last year’s logs (saved by the eldest daughter) were used to get the substrate of dry logs going, since those Yule Logs are hard to burn by themselves. Guests were encouraged to toss sprigs of holly on the fire to take away bad luck. The way it burned would prognosticate the future.
Splinters of the log and cinders were taken home to protect against fires, lightning and tax-collectors at their home. Now the Yule Log tradition, widespread since the 12th century, nearly died out with the change to pot-belly stoves and grills in the late 19th Century. The tradition still survives in sizeable pockets today in the country-side today. For fire sensitive areas, a smaller log-shaped cake now decorates the dinning room table. I've tried this custom for a few years in my little BBQ next to my house (sneaking one from the Rock Creek National Park,) and saved some ashes, and no disasters have yet befallen my home (well, except the Pentagon in Virginian Commonwealth, but that's the workplace, perhaps the White House and the “Mystic District” of Washington, D.C. were spared because of their National Yule Log?.)
For me a Christmas tree is just another elaboration on “bringing the greenery in,” and it certainly is a younger tradition than the Yule Log, perhaps a merger of pagan Nordic tree worship and perhaps the 13th century morality plays’ “Tree of Life” (from the Garden of Eden) which was often the only stage prop, and conveniently performed around the Solstice. Perhaps, the inability to have a Yule Log burning and urbanization led to the soaring popularity of the Christmas tree in the 19th century? So go get your plants!
Druid Chronicles (Evolved) 1976
By Isaac Bonewits and Robert Larson
Oimelc begins the season of Earrach (u-RoCH,) now an tEarrach (uN tu-RoCH); which is Spring, running roughly from the beginning of February till the end of April. Together, these two season constitute “the Winter Half of the Year,” otherwise known as “the Season of Sleep.”
Oimelc (i-melc,) is known in Modern Irish as Lá na Féile Bríde (Laa Nu fé-li bree-di,) in Manx as Laa ’n Arragh (Day of Spring,) and as Imbolc, Candlemas, and Lady Day in English. Lá na Féile Bríde means the day of the festival of “Saint Bridget.” Brighid, Bride, or Bridget is yet another Pagan deity turned by the Christians into a “saint,” in order to co-opt Her worship. This goddess was a triple-aspected deity of Poetry/Divination (considered the same thing,) Healing and Smithcraft, whose followers kept an eternal flame burning in Her honor.
By analogy with the Gaelic names of the other High Days, we may assume that the holiday was originally called Lá hOimelc (Laa Hi-melc.) It is the festival of the lactation of the ewes. In Paleopagan days (and, indeed, until the recent past) the sheep was a very important animal, providing both food and clothing. The occasion of the birth of lambs (not to mention kids and calves) was a cause for rejoicing and a sign of life in the “dead” world of a Northern winter.
The name “Candlemas” is a Christian term for a holiday occurring February 1st or 2nd. This supposedly is in hour of a “Saint Blaise” and has no official connection with “Saint” Bridget and Her cult of fire, nor with the fact that this day was one of the four major fire festivals of Paleopagan cultures throughout Western and Northern Europe. Of course they don’t mention a certain Slavic god named Vlaise, Who was the Patron of cattle, wealth and war, and Who was worshipped with fire. Lá hOimelc begins the spring season of Earrach. It is also the day before St. Groundhog’s Day.
More Oimelc Notes
Pentalpha Journal: Volume 2, Issue 3 Whole Number 8
Oimelc, 17 y.r. February 3/4, 1979 c.e.
By Isaac Bonewits
According to our calendar, Oimelc occurs at precisely 12:42 p.m. GMT on February 4th, 1979 c.e. This is, of course, at 7:42 a.m. EST, 8:42 a.m. CST, 9:42 a.m. MST and 10:42 a.m. PST. In most of the Reformed Druid movements, the High Day begins at sunset on February 3rd, and starts the spring season of Earrach.
Oimelc (“ee-melk”) is known in Modern Irish as La na Feile Bride (Laa Nu fe-li bree-di,) in Manx as Lao’n Arrali (Day of Spring,) and as Imbolc, Candlemas and Lady Day in English. La na Feile Bride means the day of the festival of “Saint Bridget.” Brighid, Bride or Bridget is yet another Pagan deity turned by the Christians into a "saint," in order to co-opt her worship. This goddess was a triple-aspected deity of Poetry, Divination (considered the same thing,) Healing and Smithcraft, whose followers kept an eternal flame burning in her honor.
By analogy with the Gaelic names of the other High Days, we may assume that the holiday was originally called La hOimelc (Laa Hi-melc.) It is the festival of the lactation of the ewes. In Paleopagan days (and, indeed, until the recent past) the sheep was a very important animal providing both food and clothing. The occasion of the birth of lambs (not to mention kids and calves) was a cause for rejoicing and a sign of life in the “dead” world of a Northern winter.
The name “Candlemas” is a Christian term for a holiday occurring February 1st or 2nd. This supposedly is in honor of a “Saint Blaise” and has no official connection with “Saint” Bridget and her cult of fire, nor with the fact that this day was one of the four major fire festivals of Paleopagan cultures throughout Western and Northern Europe. Of course, they don’t mention a certain Slavic god named Vlaise, who was the Patron of cattle, wealth and war, and who was worshipped with fire.