We are all in the busy last days before Christmas, so I will not intrude with many words, but I wanted to give you this beautiful Celtic blessing, in appreciation for your faithful support of my feeble offerings here this past year. May God bless you and yours this Christmas with the great Light of love that the Christ Child brings with Him.
Probably a lot of you know that many of our Christmas traditions hearken back a long way, pre-dating Christianity. Many of those come from the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who in the dreary dark of mid-winter, were celebrating as well, but for different reasons.
Under the present-day Gregorian calendar, the Solstice falls on December 21st. But back in the 7th century, if people used calendars at all (mainly the monks, who had to keep track of important religious festivals and dates) it would fall on December 25th. The pagan Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t really care what the calendar date was, they were following the movements of the sun and moon (and other celestial bodies) throughout the year, and on the Solstice dates (one in summer, one in winter) the Sun stopped moving one way across the sky and began to move the other. In the northern hemisphere, the midwinter Solstice (from the Latin, meaning “sun standing”) indicated the day with the shortest hours of daylight in the year.
The end to the creeping darkness and cold of winter and the return of longer days and more warmth was a great reason to celebrate. The winter solstice indicated the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon New Year, and was called Mother’s Night, as the celebrations entered around the rebirth of Mother Earth from the grip of winter. As Bede says,
They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through.
The name for this special season that encompassed our December and January was Yuletide (Yule-time) from the Saxon word géola. The ceremonies that Bede referred to would have involved feasting (boar, not turkey!), drinking and sacrifices to the gods, probably the Saxon fertility gods Freyja and Freyr. These ceremonies would be ongoing throughout the season, with activities before and after the Solstice.
For example, the Yule log was a huge block of wood that was laid on the hearth on the eve of Solstice and kept burning through the next twelve days of Yuletide (from which our twelve days of Christmas comes from), probably as a symbol of the returning sun and heat. It was never allowed to burn up completely, some of it was saved to light the next year’s Yule log. The unburnt portion was kept in the house in order to ward off various misfortunes such as chilblains, toothaches, and the like, and the ashes used in various potions and charms.
There is so much we don’t know about these practices. The Anglo-Saxons did not write their history and customs down, it was an oral culture, so we only have bits and pieces of what their lives were like. Some of it has survived in poetry such as Beowulf, some of it comes from other’s observations of their culture, such as the writings of Bede or the Roman occupiers of Britain before him.
The early Christians were quite masterful at adapting existing cultural celebrations to their own faith. Many of these pagan celebrations were deeply rooted in the culture and the early church leaders saw the wisdom of keeping the trappings of the celebration while using it to teach the pagans the truths of Christianity.
This midwinter celebration of Solstice, the festivals that marked the return of the light, dovetailed nicely with the Christian teachings of the coming of Christ as a baby. “The light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not over come it,” John writes in his Gospel (John 1:5), and this theme of the Light of God coming to earth was a natural fit to overlay the pagan Saxon season of Yuletide.
After all, it is not known the exact date of the birth of Jesus. If the shepherds were out in the fields, it was likely not mid-winter. Nor would a Roman emperor compel his subjects to register for an already unpopular census (for taxing purposes) in the middle of winter.
But the pagan Romans also celebrated a solstice festival, and it soon became custom to celebrate Christ’s birth this day as the culture moved from a pagan one to a Christian one. The Christian missionaries to Britain carried this custom with them, and saw the Yuletide celebrations as ones they could use to teach the Anglo-Saxons about the birth of Christ as well.
The Celts in Britain had other religious and cultural practices that they incorporated into their Christmas season. Holly and ivy were evergreen, they were thought to keep evil spirits at bay and were gathered to place in people’s houses during the dark days of winter. Mistletoe was gathered by the Druids on the day of Solstice, it was also thought to have magical properties, and became another plant that adorned the houses of the Celtic Christians. Evergreen trees were decorated with the symbols of stars and other celestial objects, and gifts (offerings) were given to the gods; the precursor of our Christmas tree.
Yule logs and Christmas trees also hint back to the reverence for trees in both Saxon and Celtic beliefs. There are so many ties to the past once you start looking!
Although both the Roman and Celtic churches in Britain celebrated Christmas, it was not the most important day of the church year. That honour fell to Easter. But at Christmas there were still some special services and prayers. Advent, which we celebrate in the month before Christmas, was a longer observance in the 7th century. They celebrated it for forty days before Christmas, to mirror the forty days of Lent.
Some of words of our favourite Christmas carols date back to the 6th century. They are based on the “O Antiphons” which the Church would use in their daily prayers and celebrations of the Eucharist. The O Antiphons were a repeated line of Scripture which highlighted one of the names of Christ, and served as a summary of the important parts of the day’s readings and prayers. They were based on the prophetic proclamations of the coming Messiah found in the book of Isaiah. These were traditionally added to the liturgy in the seven days before Christmas. In order, the O Antiphons are the O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, and O Emmanuel.
The verses of the carol, O Come O Come Emmanuel, each represent one of the Antiphons. Nowadays we don’t normally sing all the verses, of which there are either 5 or 7, depending on what version you use, but if you do you would see the Antiphons represented in each verse.
I find it fascinating to see the mix of both our pagan Anglo-Saxon and Christian heritages in our celebrations of Christmas. Whether we are feasting with friends, kissing under the mistletoe, giving gifts to each other, decorating our tree, singing carols or contemplating the coming Light in the midst of darkness, there are glimpses of all these rich traditions in the Christmas that is so familiar to us today.
Featured image from mountpeasantgranary.net
I love the Advent season, where the themes of light and dark are such rich ones for contemplation. We are all watching the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, but we wait in hope for the Light to be revealed, and we festoon our houses inside and out with lights in defiance of the dark and in anticipation of celebration. The King is coming and we make ourselves ready, inside and out.
But the weeks leading up to Christmas can be hard ones as well. I’ve lived some of those Christmases, where joy is hard to find and hope flees in the dark. I have a keener appreciation for those who struggle through the holidays. That is why I want to share this post with you, from the talented Lanier Ivester, over at The Rabbit Room. She acknowledges the dark and the despair, but finds the seeds of joy in it all the same. As she says,
“Isn’t that just the astonishing thing about Christmas—that after all the centuries of hurt and brokenness and disappointment and despair, the world still turns itself upside-down for joy?”
For all of the weary and discouraged, for those who are needing that hand holding yours in the dark, I invite you to pour yourself a hot beverage, pull up your chair, wrap yourself in a blanket, and have a read.
It’s getting down to the last two months of my Year of Important Books series, and it has been really hard to choose what my last two books would be. Well, to be honest, it’s been hard to pick this month’s book, as I have had the final one in mind pretty much all year. Stay tuned for that next month!
In the end I just couldn’t go through the year without re-reading one of my very favourites, Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. This book, published in 1908, is about a young orphan girl who was mistakenly sent to live with a middle-aged brother and sister on Prince Edward Island who had originally wanted a boy. It has become a treasured classic with over 50 million books sold, many stage, movie and TV adaptations, and has been translated into twenty languages.
Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1874, and was essentially orphaned herself as her mother died when she was an infant and her father, stricken by grief, sent her to live with her maternal grandparents in nearby Cavendish, PEI. He exited her life when he moved to Saskatchewan when Lucy was seven. She had a lonely childhood, and out of this loneliness she invented many childhood “imaginary friends” and developed the imagination that would later allow her to write not only the Anne stories but 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays.
Anne of Green Gables was written when L.M. Montgomery was already an established author. She had a hundred short stories published by 1907, and had been working as a teacher and as a proof reader for a couple of publications in Halifax. She returned to Cavendish to care for her ailing grandmother, and it was at this time that she began to write her novel about Anne, which was inspired by some notes she had made as a child about a young girl sent from an orphanage to a couple who had actually wanted a boy.
The book follows the adventures of Anne as she arrives in the fictional town of Avonlea and is met by Matthew Cuthbert, brother to Marilla, who has been sent to pick up their boy from the train station. Met with the spirited, talkative Anne, Matthew is unable to quench her enthusiasm about finally finding a home and decides to take her back to Green Gables to let Marilla break the news.
But Matthew’s heart is firmly captured by the young girl on that ride home and Marilla, although stern and prickly, soon follows suit. Anne is allowed to stay at Green Gables, much to her boundless delight.
It’s not hard to see why Matthew and Marilla were so quickly won over, because all of us quickly fall under this young girl’s spell. There’s just something about Anne, with her boundless optimism, dramatic personality, and love of beauty, that endears her to us right away. She is delighted by things that many of us miss entirely, or have forgotten to pay attention to: the blossoms on a tree, the beauty of a pond in the sun, the value of a good friend. Her vast “scope of imagination” opens up our own, and we see, again, the immeasurable beauty all around us in the simple things that we take for granted.
What is also so wonderful about this character is that Lucy Maud Montgomery did not allow her to be perfect. She has a fiery temper to match her (in her own mind) lamentable red hair, and this temper gets her into trouble more than once. She is a loyal friend, but also holds a grudge long past the time when she should have let it go. She can be vain, and silly, but these traits just endear her to us even more.
It’s not just Anne that we come to love in this book. The shy, recalcitrant Matthew and the practical, strict Marilla both act as contrasts to Anne’s sunny personality. Matthew becomes a “kindred spirit” to Anne right away, but it takes Marilla longer to warm up to this flighty, sensitive girl who has landed on her doorstep. But both of them come to life in different ways as Anne brings spunk and spirit to their every day lives at Green Gables. They had envisioned a boy to help out with the chores around the farm as they grew older, they ended up with a girl who knits them together into a family in ways they could not have imagined without her.
The setting for the book, Prince Edward Island, fits this story perfectly, for it gives Anne many opportunities to revel in its beauty. L. M. Montgomery obviously loved her island home, and it shows through Anne’s rapturous appreciation of the landscape.
I had the privilege to go to P.E.I in 2013. It was near the end of October, so I didn’t see it in the middle of summer, but it truly was just as magical and gorgeous as I had expected. Many of the tourist spots were closed, including Green Gables, the farm owned by cousins of L. M. Montgomery, who brought it to life so vividly in the Anne books. But I did manage to get to the Anne of Green Gables Museum, the home of her aunt and uncle, where she spent many happy days in her childhood and where she was married, in the parlour, to Ewan MacDonald, a Presbyterian minister, in 1911. What a marvellous time I had there, seeing many artifacts from her life and imagining her there, looking out over the (real) Lake of Shining Waters.
Unfortunately, from all accounts L. M. Montgomery’s life after her marriage was difficult, although she continued to write and publish for many years, often as an escape from the hardships she found herself in. The couple had three children, the second of which, a boy, was stillborn. Her husband suffered from some difficult health issues, including a major depressive disorder, and Lucy Maud herself battled depression as a result of caring for her husband. It’s easy to see how writing about Anne, the eternal optimist, could have been a boon to Montgomery in these years.
This book, and the ones that followed, are beloved by millions across the globe, and it’s easy to see why. I, for one, am glad to have made the acquaintance of a certain red-haired girl, who became a kindred spirit to me in an instant, and has stayed one for all these years.
*If you would like to read more about Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Anne books, I would highly recommend these blog posts over at The Rabbit Room by another Anne-lover, Lanier Ivestier:
Other posts in The Year of Important Books series: